Mikhail Glinka: Ivan Susanin (1836)

Opera in four acts and an epilogue. Running Time: 3 hours 30 minutes.


The Death of Ivan Susanin, Mikhail Scotti, 1851. 

This review (another of my jumbo 2500+ word reviews), is another one of my recent rewrites, but specifically is of the 1989 Sofia, Bulgaria recording with Chris Merritt as Sobinin, Boris Martinovich in the title role, and Alexandrina Pendachanska as Antonida, conducted by Emil Tchakarov. It is the longest recording I could find of this opera, around forty minutes longer than any other recording or performance, and appears to include everything. Not sure where the difference lays, probably conduction speed, although it was nice to finally be able to review the tenor scene at the start of act four. I am reverting to the original working title of the opera here. Also, enjoy the hashtags, I probably won’t use them to this extent again.

SETTING: Russia and Poland, the autumn and winter of 1612-1613. The #DreadedPoles threaten to destroy #MotherRussia with their vicious Roman Catholicism and menacing Mazurkas! Meanwhile, a girl just can’t get her wedding on board in an odd reversal of #Bridezillas.


ACT 1: The Village of Domnino. (48 minutes)

0: The overture * starts Beethoveenesque (it ends on the same chord which opens the Leonore 3 overture) before bogging down briefly with a forlorn oboe (a bit Belliniesque, actually) and then turning to a rather recognizable melody two and a half minutes in, this softens into a more delicate tune, then alternates. There is one other theme that represents the Poles (angst/menace) which also pops in before the end. Overall a good symphonic piece, and very long, but rather derivative of Italian models.

8: The act opens with an a cappella choral number ** (how else?) with a tenor soloist. At first a male chorus, the women quickly come in, but with them comes the orchestra and the uniquely Russian effect of the number is lost in music that is strongly Rossinian.

20: A mild bel canto soprano aria for Antonida, full of fioritura, as she sets up most of the subplot by pinning after her future #Dearhusband who is fighting for the Tsar (what else?). The cavatina is a rather stock Italiante item yet okay, but the rondo, the second section, is much better *. Susanin arrives with fateful news: the dreaded Poles are about to attack Moscow, and so Antonida is forbidden to marry her intended until the country is #Safe.

26: The Barcarole chorus (tenor-led) as Sobinin arrives on the river **. He declares that Moscow has been saved and the dreaded Poles are not a threat, but Russia is still without a Tsar, and thus the Polish threat continues and victory is so far off.

33, 36: A lovely trio ** as Susanin relents, slowly, he is still delaying the wedding, but at least now he isn’t #Cancelling it because #DreadedPoles, darn it!. A lamenting passage from the lovers ensues who are fed up with the constant postponing of their eventual #MaritalNetflixandChill **.

43: Sobinin tells Susanin that a Tsar has in fact been chosen: Mikhail Romanov. Susanin changes his mind, the wedding is back on in a tripping act ending ensemble *.

ACT 2: #Polska Live! At the Royal Palace in Warsaw. (30 minutes)

0: Stand by for the ultimate opera ballet ***. The entire act exists solely as a demonstration both that: Poland has a massive hate-on for Russia, and that the Poles have way too many national dances and that that is perhaps the reason why they got partitioned to death in 1795… just saying! We start off with a ball in progress, male chorus, then female chorus, this alternates for hours, actually just half an hour, but it will feel like hours if you don’t submit to it totally. Truthfully it is ridiculous, even mindless, to go on this long with zero plot development beyond a Russian hate-on for decadent Western culture, but it is incredibly tuneful. In fact I would even claim that, taken altogether, it is the best thing Glinka wrote, the original Polish Act! (#MussorgskyShade) but nevertheless, the Poles do not disappoint. But what I love most about it is that, as an historian, this is the primary source example in Russian opera of just what the Russians thought of the Poles in the 19th century: that they were a bunch of drunk dance-freaks whose nation was wisely subordinated.

4, 16: The ballet is structured as follows:

  1. Polonaise **.

2. Krakowiak **.

3. Waltz *.

4. Mazurka *** (this is the last time-mark).

21, 24: There is a sudden break in the music for a recitative ** which the Polish Commander speaks with a courier that Mihail Romanov has been elected Tsar and that he is staying at the Kostroma Monastery. The Poles (as a unified force) remark upon this and plot ruin for Romanov. The last five minutes are a real treat as a detachment of Polish soldiers is sent to kill the Tsar, and the the guest continue to dance, certain of Polish conquest ***.

ACT 3: The interior of the house of Susanin. (63 minutes)

2, 10: After an emotional entr’acte, we come upon the orphan Vanya and his aria ** in which he gives us all of his character background in the form of a folk song about a little birds whose mother is killed and is then taken in (mum killed by Poles, Susanin took him in). The first section has an attractive and sweet rocking tune. Susanin and Antonida come in, the latter anticipating her upcoming nuptials (#finally). Eventually, it becomes a duet with Susanin as the boy promises to fight for #MummyRossiya when he is older, the finish is very attractive **.

12: An attractive chorus of farmers * on their way to work for the day as they ask for a blessing from Susanin and he invites them to the wedding breakfast that evening.

18, 27: The Happiness Quartet *** as the happy family of four express their joy over the nuptials/#NewFearlessLeader. This is really a beautiful number, especially when Glinka minimizes the orchestra and has the four soloists embark on most of it alone, and then the rondo finish ***. It is the best number so far in the opera, a great twelve-minute sequence.

32, 35: Remarkably, and rather horrifyingly (or laughably depending on ones perspective because the effect goes beyond bordering on comic opera), Glinka follows this lovely number up with a musical abortion by allowing the dance music from the Polish act to be used as a leitmotif for the Polish soldiers who come to destroy Mikhail Romanov *. (I know that Glinka did this in order to pass the Poles off as rich pin-heads but it also defuses any real sense of impending doom/dead/murder/bloodthirstiness one would expect by having the Polish soldiers break in and order Ivan to show them the way to the Tsar.) This is first done using the trombones behind the scenes as Ivan speaks with Antonida and Vanya, but then it comes in full force as the Poles burst into the house, and it just comes off as stupidity. Ivan prevaricates to the Tsarist National Anthem **  (a bit of an improvement) then tells Vanya in an aside to leave for Kostroma to warn the Tsar, and pretends to consent to leading the Poles to Romanov. 

40: Antonida returns and freaks out ** (although wouldn’t you if you were a Russian peasant girl on the eve of your wedding and found your dad in the house with a troop of Polish soldiers singing to a Mazurka? just saying). Ivan tries to persuade her to go through with the wedding without him and goes with the Poles. This, of course, leaves Antonida alone to contemplate what we already know: her father is not coming back.

44: A Bridal Chorus in 5/4 time, the most Russian number in the score *** as the bridesmaids arrive to fit Antonida.

47: Antonida embarks on a massively emotive aria ***, knowing that daddy is not going to be with her on her wedding day, and in fact that her wedding day will be the day she becomes an orphan (been there).

52, 57, 61 : Sobinin returns to the theme from the overture *** and encounters his devastated bride. She tells him what has happened to her father and he orders his head out to find his father-in-law. They embark on a great (if subtle) duet ***. A great climax as the chorus pops in towards the end only adds to the dramatic effect ***.

ACT 4 & EPILOGUE: (69 minutes)

ACT 4: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: A forest glade.

0, 2: A furiously Beethovenesque two-minute prelude begins the act **. It is followed by a patter chorus from the troops of Sobinin as they search for Susanin **.

4, 7, 9: The Aria of Sobinin *** starts off with a brilliantly triumphant cabaletta as he addresses the troops. It turns to a slower movement as his thoughts turn from Mother Russia to making Antonida a mother (this section goes up to a Db-5), followed by a more heroic sounding finish (also with a couple of Db-5). A seven-minute tour-de-force for tenor, even if pregnant with gloom.

Scene 2: The Gates of Kostroma monastery.

15: After a mild prelude Vanya comes on and bangs on the gates rather ornerly. His aria is rather fetching **, however, saving the scene.

18: The inhabitants of the monastery (male and female?) awake and Vanya alerts them to the fact that the Tsar is in immediate danger **. An ensemble worthy of Donizetti or Bellini.

Scene 3: A forest glade.

23: We come upon the Polish soldiers (still to an odd dance tune) and Susanin trekking it through the snow * to a drifting melody. Agreeable enough, but still too close to Gilbert and Sullivan for comfort.

28, 34, 37: Ivan reflects that because of his sacrifice, his Tsar is safe ***. This goes on a very long time as Susanin contemplates G-d, his daughter’s wedding which he will never see, the saving of the Tsar’s life, the fact that his own life will be taken by the Poles at dawn. He watches as the Polish soldiers sleep and waits for the sunrise. Things turn a little more upbeat (briefly) but then turn ornery before returning to a nature tune with spinning flute dancing about as his thoughts turn to Antonida and the fact that this is the dawn of her wedding day *. This is followed by another moment of reflection. After a lot of a cappella singing we get the closest thing to an Italian-style aria, and it is very good  with clarinet (eventually oboe) in the background sadly moving back and forth with the vocal line ** (the tune is from the overture, if in a minor key).

41, 45, 47: A change overwhelms the music, a storm, the Poles wake up to that one great menacing tune from the overture ** (along with some of their dance tunes in rehash). Ivan tells them that they are all screwed **, and they furiously kill him *.

EPILOGUE: Red Square, Moscow. (21 minutes)

0: An angry entr’acte *, climaxing well enough.

3: Slavsya chorus *. If you have EVER seen a Russian movie set in the Tsarist era or several other Russian operas, you have heard this tune and it will be very familiar.

5: Sobinin, Antonida, and Vanya arrive and tell everyone about Susanin’s heroic death *. Each of the surviving soloists take a turn, first Sobinin, then Vanya, at last Antonida (who embarks on some coloratura towards the end of the long sequence), who relates the events surrounding her father’s murder. This goes on for a very long time and doesn’t seem to go anywhere musically (there is no distinctive tune anywhere) although it is nice to get some character emotion from the three higher-voiced soloists. There also seems to be a bass, perhaps the Russian Commander from Act 4 Scene 2, relating to the murder of Susanin?

16: The finale ** a repeat of the Slavsya with Antonida doing some grand whirling scales with the chorus. It wins you over in the last two minutes, just before one last bang out of the Slavsya and the curtain falls. But it really is Tsarist propaganda, even if be-musingly, even comically, so.


As with my previous attempt at reviewing this opera, there are glaring musical and dramatic flaws along side musical marvelousness and great characterization. There really isn’t much of a storyline, just a postponed wedding and a failed assassination attempt leading to the murder of an old man in the woods. The rest is just pro-tsarist/anti-Polish propaganda (exemplified by the Tsarist Apotheosis which art the Epilogue), although Glinka does do one thing right, and that is effectively allow his characters to express their emotions, especially Antonida and Susanin himself. Given that the work is the first Russian opera to avoid the use of spoken dialogue there is a lot of great music, particularly the arias and dances/choral pieces, but also very odd things like the return of the dance music as a leitmotif for the Polish soldiers, the overture (apart from the two themes which return later in the opera) is rather lumpy, and some of the ensembles can feel deathly slow. And yet, Glinka does draw at least three if not four of his named protagonists extremely well, Antonida especially is a flesh and blood human being capable of intense wild ranging emotions, her father (in spite of his hyper-nationalism) is equally relatable although his emotional range is not so wide, and Vanya is (if a slight operatic conceit) still a well articulated character. Sobinin is a brilliant tenor part, requiring a wider range of dramatic abilities than usually called for. Much of this can be attributed to Glinka’s rather successful work at parodying Italian opera, which is bluntly obvious throughout the opera. The third act is the best, although the opening forest scene for Sobinin has a character which matches it in dramatic intensity (I am not sure why it is almost always cut). The Poles are obviously the most artificial element in the opera, but their role is more as a prop and apart from the brief exchange between the messenger and the Commander they function rather akin to the Borg from Star Trek rather than as individuals.

The opera was also used as a propaganda piece (no duh) the evidence within the work itself is obvious, and it is blatantly so. In the 19th century it was a monument to the triumph of the Russian Empire over the decadence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and was the opener of the national opera season each year in Petrograd. During the Romanov Tercentenary the work was used to impress the myth that the simple Russian people adored the Tsar and saw him as the representative of G-d on earth, if not actually G-d on earth, similarly to the Byzantine emperors before him in order to reenforce the Third Rome concept in Russian culture. The story of the death of Susanin was printed and distributed widely across the Russian Empire as an example to soldiers and all subjects as to their property duty to the Tsar, and it helped that Susanin was himself a serf on a Romanov estate. During the Soviet Era, the opera was reinterpreted with a new libretto, and given more of an anti-capitalist ideological lean. Overall, if Ruslan and Ludmilla is the most seminal work of Russian opera, this was politically the most important opera ever composed by a Russian. Yet again, it can also be a testament to just how shallow Russian culture and identity actually is. Hence the use of hash-tags.

Like its successor, it could never be an alpha, but it is a very credible beta. B+.

One response to “Mikhail Glinka: Ivan Susanin (1836)”

  1. […] I re-reviewed a complete recording of this opera in Russian in 2020 here as Ivan Susanin. […]


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