Opera in four acts. Running time: 3 hours.
This is a bizarre opera. It has one of the most barbarically dark scenarios ever and yet Tchaikovsky gave this thing one of his most melodic and experimental (if patchy) scores. It is also his longest work, and if the composer had not radically cut the libretto, it would be even longer. Based on a Russian play that was successful in its day, the opera was and always has been an utter failure. This review is of the 1954 studio recording under the Melodiya label although a slightly shorter live performance (it appears to be conducted more quickly) is available on YouTube.
PLOT: Nizhny Novgorod, on the Volga river, the last quarter of the 15th century. Innkeeper Nastasya, known to her friends as “Kuma” (godmother) rejects the advances of the wicked deacon Mamirov. He decides to mercilessly destroy her by any means and spreads a rumour that she is an “enchantress”. Nikita, the local prince, falls in love with her unsuccessfully while investigating the brothel that is attached to the inn. The Prince is married and Mamirov, after being forced to dance with Kuma’s dancers at the inn, tells his wife, the menacing Princess, about her husband’s infatuation with Kuma and she enlists her son Yuri to take revenge on the innocent innkeeper. Except for the Princess (who goes insane) they all die in the end. For some reason in the fourth act a sorcerer named Kudma comes into the picture for little reason other than to drive everyone mad.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The Inn of Nastasya (Kuma) (47 minutes)
0: The prelude *, starts with a single good nature theme in the woodwinds (Kuma theme), then a storm strikes, and we are back to the nature theme (woodwinds again) with the upper strings softly underneath, then there is one last romantic theme (very noble).
8: The act proper starts off with two back to back folk scenes which are pure padding. The first is all-male and seems to be based on a theme that races about in the strings which would be good were it not broken up by interjections from the guests; the second * is all-female and brings on the first entrance of Natasya. A fake monk named Payisy chats up the guests at the inn in a long patch of recitative between the two choruses. There is then a drinking chorus for the guests ending in a “haha” chorus but by this time I was exhausted with the constant switching from energetic if boring (but very Russian sounding) choral numbers to recitatives.
18: The opera does not feel tedious yet, but there are far too many choral numbers already. Finally there is a patch of quiet serenity and the Kuma theme in the woodwinds returns as she starts her aria **. Kuma is in love with Prince Yuri, who has never met her.
23: Yet another choral number *, this one for the young Prince Yuri and his hunting party as they pass by the inn. The Prince Nikita arrives with the deacon Mamirov. They have come to inspect what they all know is actually a brothel that Nastasya operates along with the inn. Other than expanding the poor romantic situation and establishing that Nikita has been rejected by Nastasya, there is little of musical interest here apart from a brassy and slow repeat of the noble theme from the prelude and a brief light patch from the orchestra that seems to be a modified form of the Kuma theme.
36: The finale is eleven minutes long is in three parts starting with a massive decimet *, as in an ensemble for ten soloists (many of whom are inn guests we will never see again, and chorus, much of this is a cappella). This is followed by yet another bouncy choral number (this time co-ed).
41: In order to keep the prince from shutting everything down she tries to pacify him with an ironically noisy dance of tumblers *. The Prince orders Mamirov to join in which is the last insult to him from Kuma, he will have revenge.
ACT 2: The palace of Prince Nikita Kurliatev (49 minutes)
0: The act starts with a blaring brassy entr’acte *. Then strings, woodwinds.
3: The Princess’ arioso includes a feminine background chorus at first *. Mamirov tells her about Nikita’s desire for Kuma, that she has been set up as his mistress. This falls into ornery territory until a patch of good orchestral music.
17: Prince Yuri comes on and asks his mother what is wrong. After nearly four minutes of dimly orchestrated recitative the duet itself ** has a sweet cradle rocking melody, almost like gliding through water, which is better than anything else in the opera so far. Yuri then confronts his father to a wordy and musically uneventful scene that could have been a good father-son duet.
28: Left alone Prince Nikita has a rather nice arioso **, particularly the orchestration.
31: The Prince-Princess Interview * starts off with a strong orchestral reference for the Princess but is rather low temperature although probably better than the other numbers of similar star ranking.
38: Suddenly, the all-male chorus of servants comes on accused of stealing money from the Prince. A furious scene, if not that striking *. Prince Yuri arrives.
47: The five minute act finale. It breaks into a rather good trio * for the princely family in the last two minutes following a patch of arioso from Yuri.
ACT 3: Kuma’s hut. (41 minutes)
0: Yet another nice little entr’acte *, at first placid it gets a little brassy at times.
9: After about three minutes of this, including a finale minute of calm, we are immediately in a dialogue between Kuma and Prince Nikita. Like everything else in the opera it is very wordy. One duetting bit is worth looking out for * just before Kuma makes her lasting rejection of the Prince (foreboding as he tells her that his son Yuri is coming to murder her).
13: Kuma, alone, reflects on her life. It is rather pathetic, but this is also Tchaikovsky, the expert on depicting pathetic females. Two minor characters (a mezzo and a bass, her friend and her uncle) come on and tell her that Yuri is coming *. It’s all rather uneventful recitative with all the interest in the orchestra (there are two passages involving strings and harp which are rather effective, one coming up towards the end, if brief).
21, 33, 38: The rest of the act consists of a twenty minute (!) duet between Yuri and Natasya. This is rather better than anything else before in the opera ***, starting with an effecting (and rather baritonal) arioso passage from Yuri before he meets Natasya for the first time. Although at times fragmentary, the building blocks that consist of this number add up to more than the sum of the total. At first Yuri is murderous (after all, he has come to kill her), she is terrified. After twelves minutes of mostly strong recitative, the duet itself is rather breezy as Yuri has fallen in love with Kuma (she had confessed her long love for him) and she is happier but still a bit forlorn **. Watch out for the last three minutes when we finally escape the ocean of recite and at last get something close to wonderful **.
ACT 4: A forest clearing on the shore of the Volga. (45 minutes)
8: Tchaikovsky saves the most bizarre entr’acte for last, including a series of battery chord systems (dah-dah-DAH! DAH-dah! crash!) where I personally feel he must have been smoking something because it’s just stupidity. The rest consists of brooding woodsy music, no star because I am annoyed. This is followed by what at first seems like a rather exciting hunting chorus, but not exactly. There is a hunting chorus of sorts in which hunters come on and talk, but a spell of sorts comes upon the opera and we feel like we are in a different opera because we now get a bit of recitative from Kudma, a sorcerer who serves little purpose other than to provide the Princess with a poison and to laugh menacingly at the end of the opera. Prince Yuri has a patchy arioso * that is worth mentioning because he and Natasya are eloping (at least, that is the plan).
10: Some interesting instrumental work * first in the brass followed by some rather impressionistic woodwind orneriness as the Princess arrives and confronts Kudma regarding the purchase of a certain poison. The orchestration here is rather experimental, impressionist, even a bit like Richard Strauss with reminders of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
17: We get a some tragic romantic music as Natasya come on **, her arioso is just as tragic.
22: The Princess returns and tricks Natasya into gulping down the poisonous drink (telling her it is a love potion or something, incidentally Kudma laughs when she drinks). A star * for the orchestral features because there is almost nothing in the vocal line to talk about other than now chromatic some of it is. The scene is also rather long, four and a half minutes.
27: Yuri returns, and along with the two women and Prince Nikita there is a quartet **.
29, 34, 38, 42: The finale is sixteenth minutes long and starts with some frantic woodwinds bumbling about as the poison starts to slowly take effect on Natasya. The Princess admits that she has poisoned Kuma **, Yuri is horrified at his mother’s actions and Natasya is scared to die. An ornery chorus is heard in the background. After Natasya dies, Yuri attacks his mother verbally, then his father Prince Nikita physically who then kills Yuri because he does not believe that Kuma is dead, providing Yuri with an oddly lovely death scene ** as he says goodbye to the dead Natasya. This causes the Princess, who up to this point has had the fortitude of a steel bolt, to go mad with shock, as does the orchestra, which has been churning out the most impressionistic tunes for the last half-hour. Some very low basses in the chorus *, are also worth a mention as the Princess goes off with her son’s corpse. For some reason Tchaikovsky decided to throw in a Russian Orthodox funerary chorus because, why not I suppose? Then suddenly, in the last three and a half minutes of the opera Nikita, the only one left at this point, goes insane. In order to impose the idea of insanity, Tchaikovsky pulls off the closest thing to atonal music that we will ever get from him ***. All of the instruments excepting the violas which hum under everything else go mad to and fro. Kudma laughs at Nikita as he roams about in the forest, gets struck by lightening, and dies accompanied by literally everything one could think of, mad orchestral crashes, gongs, cymbals, the works.
This opera is in my collection, yet it isn’t a particularly good opera. The best numbers are the third act Yuri-Kuma love duet and the finale to act four. Second tire numbers would include Yuri’s duet with his mother in act 2 and a couple of the solo pieces along with the first act prelude. The rest consists of short, unsatisfying melodies (the first three choral numbers all seem fragmentary) and ornery recitative, usually marked in the score under the heading “Scene”. There are also “Folk Scene” numbers which are only slightly better as some remind me of the half-baked opening of Mazeppa. These have cultural merit as most of them are based on real Russian melodies, but I find that they come off as needless padding for an already overlong opera. The only genuinely interesting thing about the opera is its highly experimental orchestration, especially in the dark and bizarre final act.
What there is of the main narrative is okay however the libretto is notoriously wordy and partially because of this (among other factors) the overall effect lacks heart and conviction in spite of the dark nature of the material. Most of the characters are walk-ons and could have been totally cut without damaging the narrative. The only thing consistent and attractive in the plot is Kuma’s love for Yuri. Their love is believable, if underdeveloped, but none of the other characters, including Prince Nikita and his own infatuation with Kuma, are all that convincing. The Princess reminds me of the Princesse de Bouillon in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, both are jealous princesses who poison their supposed rivals. The character of Kudma, and the fact that we don’t see or hear about him until the fourth act makes everything involving his character seem very odd and rather incoherent. In spite of the experimental and sometimes lush orchestration and a few fleeting alpha melodies, with its brutal plot, wordy libretto, too many meaningless characters, and long recitatives that musically don’t go anywhere it must unfortunately be a gamma.