Mykola Lysenko: Taras Bulba (1891)

Opera in five acts. Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

One of my goals for this blog was to introduce Eastern European titles, and I’ve done only about six or seven. Here is an opera by a composer which is based on a somewhat famous novel by Gogol. It may be more famous to Western audiences for the film of the same name in 1962 starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis. Horrifyingly, the source material is so hyper-nationalist as to be excruciatingly racist (particularly the novel is anti-semitic, Polonophobic, and explicitly refers to Turkic peoples as being inhuman animals), so incidentally the plot has always been watered down whenever it has been theatrically treated and problems of pacing have always plagued said adaptations. In order to avoid polemics I will not even be referencing the modern name of the country in which this opera is set. In this opera so much of the plot is concentrated in the final acts and the romantic plot upon which hinges the one dramatic moment of the story (Andrei’s deserting of the Cossacks for the Poles because of his love for Maria) is restricted to the opera’s penultimate scene). Yes, the featured image is deceptive here. There are actually two versions of this opera and the original (which has not been performed since the 1955 revision and is in five acts with the present fourth act being a combination of the original acts four and five, the division of which is maintained here) expands and explains the role of Maria in the work (the original first act had two scenes, the second explains much of the relationship between Andrei and Maria in greater detail which has been reinstated in the recording used for this review as it predates the 1955 revision of the opera which dropped the scene and thus marred the context of the romantic sub-plot. There are also dances and marches that occur in awkward points and the opera in general is extremely episodic and confused.

PLOT: The southeastern quadrant of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 17th century. Polish rule is hated by the local inhabitants. Taras Bulba (bass), a Cossack leader, sends his sons Andrei (tenor) and Ostap (baritone) to be educated by the Jesuits at their school in Kiev. Andrei ends up falling in love with Maria (soprano), the daughter of the Polish governor of Dubno, which is eventually under siege by Bulba and the Cossacks. Andrei deserts for the Polish forces out of love for Maria and is killed by his father.


0: The overture is a brief symphonic poem of five minutes. ***. It is the finest element in the score and the various themes are leitmotifs which will be used in multiple ways later in the opera.

ACT 1: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: Kiev, before the Jesuit school. (18 minutes)

6: Gongs! We are in Kiev and surrounded by a sea of symphonic music and more gongs, eventually we figure out we are in an opera with the song of a tenor bard or kobzar **.

17: After some choral works Bulba arrives with his sons and tells them to remain faithful to their people but to learn the Poles’ military tactics. Alone, Ostap asks Andrei where he was earlier (Catholic mass) to low grade but racing recitative. Andrei admits his infatuation with Maria as one of the march tunes from the overture pops in *. Other than that, there really isn’t anything to mention, just brief melodic outbursts (if that), until the Kobzar returns.

18: The kobzar returns and is asked for a folk song **, he gives a song based on a melody from the overture, this arouses the people and the Polish soldiers are ordered to kill the bard, ending the scene.

Scene 2: A room in the apartments of Maria. (11 minutes)

29, 33: The scene opens with a religious-sounding chorus of Polish servant-women and a recitative and brief aria for Maria **, which has a good finish at least.  Andrei (who is found hanging from her windowsill), at first frightens her. It does add a bit of whimsy to the otherwise rather grave-sound act. Her father shows up and embarks on a brief arioso * which could have stepped out of a Rossini opera, but otherwise, Maria is just trying to avoid Andrei being discovered. It ends with a bit of fury from the orchestra.

ACT 2: The house of Taras Bulba. (34 minutes)

0: A calm prelude opens the act followed by some praying from Nastia (Bulba’s wife and the mother of Andrei and Ostap) *. This is a low-key relief after the high dramatics of the previous scene, also a nice change to hear a contralto. The boys return and Taras laughs at a story Ostap tells him.

14: The peasants arrive and give a chorus that would not musically be out of place in an Italian opera *. Tovkach, a friend of Bulba’s tells of the uprising against the Poles which is burning across the land, this leads to a mixed chorus and dancing followed by Taras’ song of toxic-nationalism. More march tunes from the overture and Taras decides to bring his sons to the Cossack council or Sikh.

29: Nastia protests this violently *. She eventually collapses in grief and Taras orders his sons out.

ACT 3: The Sikh. (26 minutes)

0: An icy opening dominated by muted trumpet *, followed by Cossack whimpering. Taras arrives and rouses the Cossacks. Andrei and Ostap arrive as well and there is some excited music. Kyrdiaga, a Cossack, arrives and the entire coven elects him as their leader in an extremely long scene. It is okay but dramatically meaningless because we will never see Kyrdiaga again in the opera, and we never saw him before either. The Cossack oath is really creepy. There is an orchestral explosion followed by some horse riding music and Andrei but I got bored here and want the act to end.

22: The March of the Cossacks *, after much going about leads to a tune from the overture again and then a sotto voce chorus in the last two minutes exploding in a fierce and even scary Cossack war chorus. Very loud instead of very good.

ACT 4 (27 minutes)

Scene 1: The Cossack camp near the besieged city of Dubno.

0: At first scary prelude leads to something that finally borders on romantic music leading to Andrei thinking about Maria in a lilting romance **. This is the first music in the opera which is both really very good and not derived from the overture. Maria’s maid Tatarka arrives with a message. The city is dying of hunger and Maria needs Andrei’s help. He goes with her, bring food.

Scene 2: The chapel of the governor’s palace, Dubno.

12: After a chorus of Poles suffering from malnutrition (but someone has the strength to play the organ?), Maria arrives and tries to present herself as our leading lady even though we have never heard her before in the entire course of the opera **. It is also the first solo music not sung by a tenor in this opera which I actually like.

16: Andrei arrives and the two lovers embark on a mildly agreeable duet *. This is followed by Andrei’s induction into the Polish army.

ACT 5: (20 minutes)

Scene 1: A field before the city of Dubno.

0: Military march music *. Taras reflects and gives orders over themes from the overture.

9: Taras eventually comes upon Andrei in a Polish uniform and kills him (traces of a mazurka *).

12.30: Ostap’s song to his brother’s corpse **.

Scene 2: The gates of Dubno.

18: After some more interruptions from a tenor Cossack engaging in attack dialogue with Taras we enter into a two minute orchestral symphony depicting the taking of Dubno and the opera ends with yet another return of music from the overture and otherwise banging until the opera mercifully ends *.


Ah, this opera. Let us get to what is good first. The two tenor roles (Andrei and the bard in act 1) are amazing, as is the overture which is mined basically to death over the rest of the opera and entombs almost all of the memorable music. What is wrong with the opera? Almost everything else except for Maria’s and Ostap’s acts 4 and 5 arias and perhaps Nastia’s simpler piece at the start of act 2. The female characters are completely and irredeemably wasted, so much could have been done with them but instead the plot focuses on the militant aspects of the story (which are not all that interesting and musically not all that inspired as Lysenko just repeats three or four tunes from the overture constantly) and abandons the romantic plot which would at least have steamed things up a little. The story is so episodic as to be almost inaccessible and there is no reason to have both the second and third acts. Almost nothing even happens: the first three acts lead up to the siege of Dubno, Andrei’s desertion is all that happens in act 4 and he is killed in act 5 as the Cossacks take the city, nothing more than that except for some very disturbing Cossack Hetman nationalism that we all could truly live without. As a teenager I even wrote a five act scenario based on this story and I find my own work from then more concise than this thing. In the end there is a good overture and six good arias, and although that makes for a good concert it doesn’t add up to a good opera. C+.

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