Magic Opera (!) in five acts. Running Time: 3 hours 25 minutes.
Setting for the Gardens of Chernomor, Andreas Roller, 1842.
This opera had a complicated genesis. Glinka composed it piecemeal and out of performance order over a period of six years, with many of the numbers composed before the scenario had even been written much less the libretto finalized. It is said that a friend of his named Konstantin Bakhturin devised the scenario in a quarter of an hour while drunk. Thus many of the numbers are overlong as a result and there is little character development (in fact, major characters disappear for hours at a time). It is also very slow, to say the least.
SETTING: Kievan Rus, 9th century. The basic story revolves around the kidnapping of Ludmila (soprano), daughter of the Prince of Kiev Svetozar (bass) and fiancée of Ruslan (bass), by the evil dwarf sorcerer Chernomor (mute, usually performed by a child). Ruslan, along with the Khazar prince Ratmir (contralto), the Varangian knight Farlaf (bass), the minstrel Bayan (tenor), and Finn the good sorcerer (tenor) rescue not only Ludmila from the wicked dwarf but also Gorislava (soprano) from the evil sorceress Naina (mezzo-soprano) who is in league with Chernomor.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The Banquet Hall of Svetozar, Grand Prince of Kiev. (45 minutes)
0: The famous overture *** consists of three primary themes that will reappear later in the opera: first is a jubilant theme, then two others that are more delicate rocking themes.
5: The long opening scene ** minstrel Bayan sings an interesting song (accompanied by a piano in the orchestra pit imitating the East Slavic gusli), interjections from the various soloists and chorus forwards portions of the narrative underneath this long song about how the couple will be met with misfortune which will only make their relationship stronger as a result, ending in choral jubilation. But it does start to feel a little never-ending during its quarter-hour running time.
20, 31: Grustno mye, roditelj dorogoj Another quarter-hour sequence:A lovely cavatina from Ludmila * (who will have very little to do for the next two hours), very lite and soundly in the Italianate bel canto style with choral interjections and a bouncy cabaletta as she addresses Farlaf. The best section is her word of comfort to Ratmir, which is a legato passage, before returning to bouncy when she pledges herself to Ruslan. The betrothal scene which follows could have been taken out of a Russian translation of Norma without anyone noticing too much until Ludmila makes her pledge (to a quotational scale from Lucia di Lammermoor) * before everyone (Ratmir and Farlaf make comment). Gifts are presented to more choral accompaniment before—
37, 41: The Abduction and act finale **, a chromatic affair with hard whole tone chords (the Chernomor Scale) from the orchestra (little if any vocals at first). Only Bayan seems not totally paralyzed (although even he is unable to say or do anything). Ruslan is the first to sing, then Ratmir. Svetozar promises Ludmila to whomever can rescue her ** in a furious stretta as the three suitors set off (led musically by Ratmir, who as a contralto is obviously singing higher than the three basses below him). This entire sequence causes me to get a little teared up for some reason, maybe because it is both an instance of Glinka quoting himself (the Polish Act from Ivan Susanin) and Tchaikovsky will use the final chords of the act in Orleanskaya Djeva).
ACT 2: (38 minutes)
Scene 1: The Cave of the Wizard Finn.
0: The entr’acte * is an arid piece, known for its string and woodwind work. It is appropriate music for introducing Finn, whom Ruslan asks advice from.
5: Dobro pozhalovats moy syn Finn goes into a long backstory in ballad form * in which he reveals that once he was a Finnish shepherd who fell in love with the beautiful Naina. In order to win her he became a soldier for hire, but failed to win her affection until he studied magic, which caused Naina to become obsessed with him, which caused him to run away from her, and now she is an evil soceress whose wrath will fall upon Ruslan as well. But Ludmila, Finn promises, will not be harmed, and he directs Ruslan to go north.
Scene 2: A deserted place.
19: Blizok ugh chas torzhestva moyego The entire scene is somewhat the origin of Russian magic music (the woodwind theme will be reused by Tchaikovsky famously in The Sleeping Beauty). It consists entirely of an encounter between Farlaf and Naina, in which she promises to help him find Ludmila and destroy Ruslan. Farlaf triumphs with a gloating rondo *. Amusing enough.
Scene 3: A battlefield covered with bones.
23: O polye, polye A rather good bass aria ** (strong orchestration) for Ruslan as he is confronted with his own mortality.
28: O Ludmila! A rather triumphant passage from Ruslan (theme found in the overture) ** as he resolves to find Ludmila.
31: The rest of the act consists of a male choral-soloist scene ** for Ruslan and the Head of the Giant (the brother of Chernomor). After it tries to blow Ruslan away with a sand storm, during which Ruslan strikes at it with his own sword. It is revealed by the Head that in its mouth is a sword destined to kill both the Giant and Chernomor. The Giant was tricked by his brother and his live head buries the sword, which Ruslan can now claim and with which he can slay Chernomor. Theatrically (stage-wise) it is problematic, but musically the scene rather works.
ACT 3: The magical palace of Naina. (49 minutes)
0: Another entr’acte *, this time with a powerful banging start and then stringed confusion, more powerful banging, and then trumpet call, a more magical theme comes upon the score.
3: The chorus of Persian slaves * sets off the Act Two of Parsifal aspect of the opera as male travelers and soldiers are seduced into the Garden of Naina by ballet dancers. So gentle it is sinister.
8: The Cavatina of Gorislava *, an oddly musically strong piece for a character who is otherwise not so well defined and difficult to project.
14, 20: I zhar i znoy smenila The mid-way point in the opera is an good (if sober) aria for Ratmir ** (with a find oboe accompaniment). The ballet starts in the middle of the long aria *.
26: And now, the dreaded ballet appears, although not so dreadful *, a placid affair of agreeable music.
37, 45: The act finale: Gorislava rushes on * trying to salvage Ratmir from Naina and her houris, the chorus is rather strong and takes him in in spite of her urging. Ruslan then arrives and falls in love with Gorislava. It seems like Naina is going to win (and have Ratmir and Ruslan slain) when Finn shows up * and makes the Sign of the Cross with the Holy Spear and transforms the palace into a forest and the four heroes strike out on a sotto voce ensemble before heading out to rescue Ludmila.
ACT 4: The Gardens of Chernomor. (40 minutes)
0, 2, 6: A more energetic entracte * is however the shortest and before long we are upon Ludmila ** who has successfully resisted by her own will the charms of the garden (Chernomor having realized that the only way he can control her is through the artificiality of magic, he can not deceive her naturally). She refuses everything presented to her. Finally she clears everyone out and embarks on a magnificent aria *** (the best in the opera) as she pines for Ruslan and prays for rescue from her imprisonment.
17: The March of Chernomor ***, the musical equivalent of hard intoxication, complete with a tune in the glockenspiel (or is it celesta?) which will stay with you forever.
22: Another dose of ballet *: this time a Turkish dance, Arabian dance, and a Lezginka ***. What is up with operas and their idea that Islamic culture is magic? The more investing is the last, and is based on the meter of Caucasian dancing. It slows up mid-way for the female soloist, but speeds up again for the male soloist.
30: A bizarre chorus * as Ruslan chases Chernomor around the stage (a bass chasing a child dwarf around on stage? totally normal), and finally cuts off his beard (his source of power).
32: The fourth act finale **: Ruslan finds Ludmila, but she has been put to sleep as a result of the spell of Chernomor. He has to figure out how to transport her. Gorislava and Ratmir look on. Fade out.
ACT 5: (33 minutes)
0: Furious entr’acte *.
3: Ratmir comes on for the second great contralto aria ** as he pines for Gorislava. His men arrive and inform him that Farlaf has abducted the body of the sleeping Ludmila with the help of Naina.
12: The rest of the scene consists of a duet between Ratmir and Finn *. Finn gives Ratmir a ring and tells him to give it to Ruslan in Kiev.
Scene 2: Same as Act 1.
19: The finale ** starts off with a mournful chorus of Kievans as they watch over the sleeping Ludmila. Farlaf tries to claim the reward for bringing back Ludmila, but Svetozar refuses since she is obviously under some sort of magical curse.
23: Ruslan uses the ring to awaken Ludmila (who returns to a piano/gusli) *** and a grand ensemble ensues with high soprano lines for our princess.
29: The opera ends with a choral reprisal of the main theme from the overture with interjections from Gorislava and Ratmir ***. A happy ending is had by all.
The problem with Ruslan and Ludmila is that the plot is confusing and the score even more self-confused. What is really a rather straightforward tale of abduction and rescue has been transformed into the secular, sexy daddy of Parsifal. Naina is Klingsor, Gorislava an unwilling Kundry, and Finn is a secular god. Like the later music drama, it is ridiculously heterosexist in its portrayal of women as so irresistible that the women themselves curse their irresistibility. The events of acts three and four are too similar (each features both ballet and rescue), and the opera is grossly over long (by at least an hour if not more). There are too many characters, and they are introduced far too slowly (some as late as acts three or four). Farlaf is an opera-buffa character lost in a serious fairy opera. The main female character is almost non-existent (and by the time she shows up in act four the plot has already been derailed), and the contralto is actually the most interesting musically of all of the characters. As in Wagner, there are far too many low-voiced males and the usage of the tenor voice for two roles is obviously meant to off-set the massive vocal casting imbalance. It is dramatically a back ally abortion of the bloodiest kind. But musically, it is actually rather brilliant. The first act has a consistent structure (unlike the others) and introduces two major developments in Russian operatic music: the heroic idiom for Ruslan (which is fleshed out in the battlefield scene in act two) and the Chernomor Scale (a whole tone scale which will be used time and again by other Russian composers to denote the presence of evil). In the second act, which is far more loose, we are introduced to a scurrying theme when Naina enters which will return again in the works of other Russian composers (most notably Tchaikovsky). The third act, for all its weaknesses, introduced the oriental idiom into Russian opera (the chorus of Persian Slaves will be reincarnated as the Dance of the Persian Slaves in Khovanshchina), and includes the first of two great arias for contralto. By act four, we have almost forgotten about Ludmila, who nevertheless is a stronger persona than her absence would credit. However, how many operas present one with the spectacle of a soprano menaced by a magic dwarf? The best music would be the overture, act four, and the act five finale. The March of Chernomor is frankly a guilty pleasure of mine. However, it is very easy to see this opera more as a concert in the opera seria sense than as true musical drama, because of drama, it has very little. Although it could never be an alpha, it is certainly a beta, maybe even plus.