Umberto Giordano-Siberia (1903)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes.

PLOT: St. Petersburg and Siberia, the first half of the 19th century. Stephana is the mistress of Prince Alexis who bought her from her seducer Gleby but she is really in love with Vassili, a soldier who kills the Prince in self defence and is sentenced to hard labour in a prison camp in Siberia. Stephana decides to join him in Siberia. At Russian Easter, Stephana plots for Vassili and her to escape but Gleby arrives in their prison camp after being arrested himself for one of his many crimes. Gleby insults Stephana and, during the night, sounds the alarm on the escaping lovers. Vassili is brought back and Stephana is carried in mortally wounded. Apparently this all takes three acts to transpire.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Rotunda in the palace of Prince Alexis Frouwor near the bedroom of his mistress Stephana.

0, 7, 11, 17: If you ever wanted to know what Russian Orthodox liturgical music would sound like in Italian here is your chance, 70 seconds of a cappella Russian religious music in Italian for tenor soloist and chorus *. The first instrumental music consists of a weird minuet-ish tune that sets the mood of a summer evening in the upper class district of St. Petersburg. Stephana’s maid Nikona stops Ivan (the butler) and Gleby from entering her mistress’s bedroom as she is asleep. Prince Alexis arrives and is shocked that Stephana is asleep while the Tsar is just arriving fresh from a military victory. It is all recitative until Gleby goes into a song about Stephana * followed by mood music before Stephana herself finally arrives and presents her aria at first in a kind of recitative but then it starts to rise with a classical melody **. Gleby tries to pimp her off to another guy (while he is on pension from the Prince for Stephana’s services?). Gleby has a scampering tune and then more hysterics from the duo as he finds that she has a new lover. Prince Alexis gets a charming arioso in which he proposes to Stephana because his mother wants him to marry *. It has a weird series of woodwind bits that pop in.

22: Vassili is announced by Ivan. There is no duet in the proper sense as Nikona is with them most of the time and the music is scattered melodically. Vassili does get the out arioso but otherwise it never gels until it finally does * and he doesn’t want to go to battle.

23: Stephana gives her war pep song *. Vassili is afraid obviously but he declares his love for her well and then the lovers are found by Prince Alexis. The confrontation and the scuffle leading to the death of the Prince and the arrest of Vassili is okay, but the duel is underplayed (weird high strings) and the arrest overplayed. It is all over in 80 seconds.

ACT 2: Wasteland on the border between Russia and Siberia.

7, 10, 16, 17, 19: There is a long prelude of brooding music that borders on being a combination of Mussorgsky and low temperature Wagner at first before turning total Mussorgsky and slightly atonal (lots of what sound like the “wrong notes”). Suddenly an ardent waltz tune pops up only to die away. It is about as impactful as the Intermezzo of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which is to say not really but it passes the time, albeit abstractly. No star. Afterwards some dull  recitative in which prisoners exchange pleasantries and some are misidentified by a Captain as Polish Jews when they are really Christians. There is a rather nice bit here ** finally where an unnamed girl shows up wanting to see her father and asks a Cossack if this is possible. Then there is some more of that Russian religious-type music from a living-chain of prisoners, but not as tuneful as the first outing, still a *. A bit of terror music follows and then some more pleasantness as Stephana arrives. The reunion between her and Vassili isn’t Tristan and Isolde’s but it is okay. Suddenly Stephana breaks out into a nice bit *. Vassili is ardent *. She has decided to join him in the prison camp in Siberia and he tries to dissuade her in the longest aria so far in the opera *.

23, 27: Stephana’s response, and Vassili’s reply, are probably the most adult part of the opera ** We get a return of the prisoner’s a capella choir (this time mixed-gender). Then suddenly there is a lilting waltzing melody that sounds so uncharacteristic but it is good *. Chorus returns in the distance and there is a fade out.

ACT 3: A prison camp in the Trans-Baikal, Holy Saturday.

0: For Russian prisoners the women are very Italianate * as they prepare for Russian Easter. Stephana encounters an Invalid and pays him so she and Vassili can escape.

5, 13: The love duet **, warms up quickly and stays there as they are excited by the possibility of soon being free (albeit in the freezing tundra of Siberia?). There is an orchestral interlude before Gleby is brought in and after revealing how he came to become a prisoner he tries to seduce her again (epic failure). It takes a long while to warm up and is about as ornery as the music to the prelude to the previous act but then it goes into some late-Verdi that isn’t half bad *. Stephana has an understated arioso which takes a while to rise and then she fends off Gleby with some powerful soprano cries, sort of like a wild animal.

19: Then, if you can believe it, there is a two minute orchestral passage “allegro moderato”. This isn’t half bad * and ranges from quiet to an almost “Doctor Zhivago” countryside journey theme.

23: There is much recitative ranging from traditional Verdian to 20th century ornery leading to Gleby attacking Stephana and mocking her viciously in a rather lovely aria *.

28: Vassili lashes out at him and Stephana stops him, there is an impassioned plea for forgiveness from Vassili to Stephana * and Gleby makes another attempt on Stephana. Her response has an ornery orchestral accompaniment.

30: Calls that it is Easter now “Christ is risen!”‘s from the Prison Governor, then the staff, then the inmates. It crescendo’s oddly as the prisoners go off to prayers. Very modern sounding, like Philip Glass. No star.

33: Out of now where the Prison Governor orders an orchestra of Balalaikas to play. This is a bit better * and a decent piece of local colour. On the second movement Vassili and Stephana makes their escape and the number is ruined by the sounding of the alarm.

38: Ornery prison chase music, shots are fired. The Governor is angry and Stephana is shot, mortally wounded but alive long enough for one last scene. Stephana tells Vassili to not cry but he goes all Italian lover on her (strange for a Russian, no?) **. It is all sweet and dramatic with hints of act 1 on a solo violin with a chorus of prison inspectors on underneath as Vassili goes all “La Boheme” on us as Stephana dies and then crescendo! The end.

COMMENTS:

There are three types of music here. One is traditional Italianate opera music anyone would probably identify as late-Verdi or 19th century Puccini. This is fine stuff but Giordano is obviously committing parody here. The second is a queer sort of early atonality that comes off very ornery and out of place when it is so closely positioned with the traditional music. The third is an Italian variant on Russian liturgical music (or folk music in the case of the balalaika music) which comes off well and situates the opera into local colour. I am not sure what Giordano wanted to do here because he is only truly successful with the parody of Russian local colour. The plot is okay, although the second act seems dramatically irrelevant apart from, again, local colour in the chorus numbers and the duet between the Young Girl and the Cossack, and in telling us why and how suddenly in act 3 the lovers are in freezing Siberia sweating it out in a prison camp. The escape attempt is idiotic and stereotypical, as is to some extent Stephana’s death in said attempt. That the dreadful Gleby just happens to end up in the same prison camp (on Holy Saturday?) is more than a little incredible. There are one or two very good items in each act which does save the opera a bit. The prelude to the second act (obviously meant as scenic time filler for the short opera) is so ornery and falls into parody (as mentioned Mussorgsky and Wagner) so much that it can not be claimed to be even a worthwhile piece and is probably the opera at its worst (which is to say when Giordano makes an attempt at sounding “modern” and what is more is making a parody of other, better, composers). Most of the good music belongs to either Stephana or Vassili (no surprise there) but Gleby’s first act arioso con coro is good as is Prince Alexis’ marriage proposal in the same act but nothing here is truly great, even the nice Russian liturgical-style choral sequences. B-.

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