Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Voyevoda (1869)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

Today would have been the 65th birthday of my mother.

This is the first opera ever written by Tchaikovsky, one of my favourite composers. It suffers from serious musical and dramatic weaknesses, although the embryonic features of magnificent melody and orchestration (and instrumental effect) are already present in the then 28 year old composer. However, the process of composition was slow (due to the librettist taking his time with the second scene of act two) and with Tchaikovsky lacking confidence in the resulting work (justified, really), which he ultimately burned in 1869 after incorporating portions of the first two acts into the score of Oprichnik and two numbers from act three into act four of Swan Lake. Although portions of the act 2 dances and the overture had survived and were performed in concert until 1898, it was only in 1949, after almost all of the score had been reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts, that the opera entered the repertoire of any house, in this case the Maly Opera in Leningrad.

SETTING: A town on the Volga River, mid-17th century. Shalygin (bass) the Voyevod of the title, is engaged to Praskovya (soprano) the daughter of Vlas Dyuzhoy (bass), but decides to marry her sister Marya (soprano) when he lays eyes on her after she helps her lover Bastryukov (tenor) escape during a rendezvous. Bastryukov then teams up with Dubrovin (baritone) whose wife Olyona (mezzo-soprano) has been abducted by Shalygin, to save both women.

The opera is organized rather oddly, although this does not affect its theatrical presentation. The first act is the longest, consisting of a single tableau divided into five sections termed episodes which house a total of nine musical numbers. Act two consists of two tableau, and twelve numbers. Act three is a single tableau consisting of eleven musical numbers. At least five or six of these numbers are marked as scenes, which consist solely of recitative, while there are scenes within sections of arioso and ensemble as well. The second and third acts are of approximately the same length.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1 (The Gardens of the mansion of Vlas Diuzhoy). (62 minutes)

0: The overture ***, is frankly nuts. A series of very good concepts (one getting probably far too much time) it broadly identifies what is wrong not just with this opera but all later Tchaikovsky operas (the domination of the orchestra). The middle section is more severe, and resultantly disconnected from the main theme, but the finish is rather magnificent (if frantic and fragmentary, including a theme which would better represent the nostalgia of the last opera of a great composer rather than his first, it returns in the finale), and would be reworked as the conclusion to the overture of Oprichnik.

10: Na more utushka The opening chorus of maidens is marked andantino but sounds more like largo. Nevertheless it is atmospheric and is unmistakably Russian *.

19: Stanovili storozhey Marya comes on with her nurse Nedviga (mezzo) and embarks on an impassioned arioso passage before performing a sinister song about a nightwatchman with a weird choral backing. The second half will be incorporated into the first act of Oprichnik and includes a melody which sounds a lot like Finlandia ** along with another which will probably show up in Onegin. The overall effect of the scene demonstrates how strongly the orchestra comes off. Some effects in the woodwinds (oboe, clarinet?) come off as distracting at times and even a little reprehensibly.

24: Prokhodi A weird comic scene as Bastryukov comes on with his servant Rezvy and male chorus (this masculine scene contrasts with the entirely female episode that preceded it). The highlight is the flighty repeated bit in the vocal line and upper strings for Bastryukov *. He is eventually left alone (notice the eery bit in the violins during the recitative).

29: Dogoray na nebe The first Tchaikovsky tenor aria * is, frankly, weird. The phrasing and the orchestration (again the woodwinds twirl about) do not line up as they should and it appears as if Tchai doesn’t know that giving low C# all the time to tenors (there are eight here, I followed along with the score) is both hard and baritonal (and are close to muted). There are also some attempts at fioratura in the vocal line, but these come off as forced and a bit disjointed. Nevertheless, not a horrible turn, and the melody has an awkward attractiveness to it. The orchestra, again, comes close to drowning out the singer (especially on the low D#s and C#s). Heavily derivative (there are traces of Verdi, Meyerbeer, maybe even Smetana) with its A# peak, but in its own way it isn’t unentertaining (and it is always nice to hear a tenor aria, even a misshapen one).

34: Day mne potershitsya The recitative that immediately follows between Marya and Bastryukov comes off more like an intense sequence leading to murder, but it is actually the prelude to a love duet *. At the end point we do get something resembling Finlandia, but it dies when Rezvy arrives and warns of the return of Vlas Diuzhoy with the Voyavod. The interaction between the two basses will end up becoming the opening of act one of Oprichnik, where it serves a similar purpose. There are interjections from a servant named Nastiya and from a Jester. There is a long recitative patch (around seven minutes) which forwards us to when the Voyevod sees Marya and decides that he will marry her instead of her sister Praskovya.

49: Ty ne slezi svoi A fateful quartet *, darker than most of the music before it, but with a strangely romantic tune from the Voyevod. Marya is terrified. Bastryukov returns and tries to rescue Marya from a fate worse than death, but doesn’t get anywhere.

56: Nu, chto zh vy The act finale ** begins with a furious passage in which the Voyevod demands he get his way while Bastryukov and Marya protest in vain. There is a surprisingly good passage led by Bastryukov with male chorus. The final ensemble brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, although Tchaikovsky does seem a little out of his element, especially in the concluding symphony.

ACT 2: (47 minutes).

0: The entr’acte * is a dark and brooding piece.

Scene 1: The home of Bastryukov. (16 minutes)

2: Gde-to boyarin? The opening chorus of servants is a bit eery but it quickly picks up, if only a little *.

5: Dusha gotiy i serdtse rvetsya The second tenor aria for Bastryukov is better than the first **, although it mostly lacks the passion of the first. It would be reused in Oprichnik. The remainder of the scene consists of an interview between Bastryukov and Dubrovin, who up to this point has not been a factor in the plot. Dubrovin reveals that his wife Olyona had previously been abducted by the Voyevod, and has been locked away by him in a tower. The two men vow to rescue both women. This goes full Wagnerian at times, although if there was a passage which seemed like it was just written off, it would be this one.

Scene 2: The home of the Voyevod. (31 minutes)

16, 21: The entr’acte ** as the scenery is changed, the harp is a nice add on. The second movement is much better, before the transition into the dance of the chambermaids **. A recitative between Nedviga and Marya sets up the scene.

29: Solovushka v dubrovushke Marya embarks on a sad song which will eventually end up in Oprichnik *.

38: Tikho luna vzoydet Marya meets Olyona in recitative, and the plan to have Marya returned to Bastryukov is revealed, followed by a good duet for the two women **.

40: Khochu uvidet milogo The second duet (yes, there are duet) takes a theme which will eventually end up in the 1812 Overture *. It is followed by some plot forwarding recitative.

45: Za dvorom luzhok The act ends with a chorus of maidens based on a folk tune intended to cheer up Marya *.

ACT 3: Courtyard outside the house of the Voyevod. (47 minutes)

0: The entr’acte ** will end up as the fourth act prelude to Swan Lake.

4: Zanylo serdtse retivoye Dubrovin (remember the five minutes he was on stage in act two?) gets an aria at this point *.

8, 10: Temnaya nochka Yes, this section of orchestral music ends up in Swan Lake *. At last, or rather after an hour, Marya and Bastryukov are reunited, and Olyona and Dubrovin, in a lovely quartet * (mostly a cappella at first with a harp and strings coming in).

18: Mily, ver mne A duet for Olyona and Dubrovin *.

24: Temnaya nochka Another quartet for the two couples ** this time with stronger orchestration.

29: Ty prosti The Voyevod shows up and has the couples arrested * in a quartet. They beg for mercy, the chorus gets in on the act. Eventually, the Voyevod gets so angry that he just grabs Marya and drags her back into the castle, but she escapes (shouts can be heard from within).

37: Ostanovis! The new Voyevod arrives * and orders the arrest of the old Voyevod in the name of the Tsar, thus reversing the entire narrative.

40: Slava! Slava! The joyous finale ***, based on the theme from the end of the overture as the lovers are reunited. Almost Mozartean in its construction, until the very end when it turns into a combination of Ode to Joy and a comedic version of Dies Irae. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

What was immediately obvious, even by Tchaikovsky himself, was that the scenario doesn’t work as musical theatre. There isn’t really any plot here, just a string of almost random romantic complications with the dramatic depth of an early Mozart opera (or even, Rousseau). The story consists of girl A being in love with boy A but being abducted by boy B who rejects her sister girl B who doesn’t really factor after this point (technically the role goes to a soprano, but I never saw any lines for her in the score!), then boy A teams up with boy C to rescue girl A and girl C. In the end they are rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of a new Voyevod. And that is another problem with the opera: there are twelve soloist roles, of which perhaps four are actually relevant to the story and many of them are walk ons with very little to do over the two and a half hour long running time of the opera! The Olyona/Dubrovin subplot is more of a distraction from the main narrative, rather than a greater contribution to the overall story.

Tchaikovsky never found the right balance between orchestral texture (of which he is easily one of the greatest composers) and giving his singers enough theatrical pathos to hold the stage (which he never mastered fully even if he came close in Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades). Even more so than in his later operas, the characters here are cardboard cutouts, even theatrical tropes, rather than flesh and blood personalities or even theatrical symbols. The orchestra does most of the showing and telling, the singers are mere props, drowning in an ocean of, admittedly remarkable, orchestral bravado. Tchaikovsky himself later recalled that at the time he was aiming for something between opera and a symphony, which is apparent but also spells death unless your name happens to be Wagner.

The initial scenario in four acts must be a mistake, or perhaps act two consisting of two scenes was the result of two acts being combined. There is little plot forwarding beyond act one apart from Bastryukov and Dubrovin teaming up (and the introduction of the Olyona subplot) and the sudden and fortuitous arrival of the new Voyevod just in time to give the story a happy ending. And speaking of endings, isn’t this all rather similar to what would eventually be composed by Rimsky-Korsakov as Pan Voyevoda? Another reference is I find it hard to believe that Dvorak never heard this score, because much of it reminds me of Dimitrij. Certainly there are musical phrases here that sound a lot like that opera. But this is essentially impossible and the similarity must be due to accident and the limits of music. Or perhaps it is Rienzi? There is a ballet in the dead centre of the opera, so Meyerbeer and French Grand Opera are also influences.

Nevertheless, this is Tchaikovsky, and I do like Tchaikovsky, even bad Tchaikovsky, which this definitely is. He doesn’t seem to know how to write tenor vocal music properly yet (the phrasing is uniquely bad, made more shocking by the accuracy of the soprano phrasings), although the influence of bel canto is there even if it is ape-like. The orchestra is POWERFUL here (although whether he is trying to imitate Meyerbeer, Wagner, or Gounod on fire, I will never forgive the existence of Polyeucte(!), is anyone’s guess), Tchaikovsky the symphonist is already maturing if not quite fully mature. Although the voice isn’t really there in the vocal lines, the mature master is already present in the orchestra. Queerly, no pun intended, Tchaikovsky provided a decently enjoyable show here, even if it isn’t all that dramatically viable. The moments of clunkiness actually add to the enjoyability. And it is certainly better than most other youthful works. This is a first timer opera after all, and in comparison to many, this isn’t horrible. Perhaps not Brandenburgs in Bohemia, but it isn’t Alfred either. If it had been a tone poem, this might be up there with Also Sprach Zarathustra. But alas, it is a mediocre opera. Barely, but somehow, a beta.

2 thoughts on “Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Voyevoda (1869)

  1. I applaud your continued spotlighting of lesser known works. I took your intriguing review as landing somewhere between a recommendation and a warning. But I listened to Act 1 on YouTube. And – whatever the amorphous mixture of elements it takes to hit my sweet spot – this one basically delivers. Granted, I didn’t like the voice of the main soprano (she seemed to sail into Clara Cluck territory far too frequently). But everybody else was excellent, especially the lead tenor. And – even if the orchestrations could be construed as over-prominent, I’ve got to say I thoroughly enjoyed letting them wash over me. And the choral work’s wonderful. All in all – and I’m only basing this on Act 1 -I’d say there’s never a dull moment. Great sound quality. I even love the album cover painting. Bottom line: I’ve ordered the CD from Amazon. Will listen to the rest when it arrives. But something tells me I’m going to like the whole thing. Once again, thanks for making me aware this thing exists.

    Like

    1. I actually own a copy of Voyevoda, already! I was hooked by the end of the overture! The goal of my blog is exactly what you said, making people aware that things exist, so I am so glad you find this opera so enjoyable! And I often reappraise reviews (usually I mark them as Revised in the title). Since OperaScribe and I are basically the only ones who write reviews like this (and I am the only one who writes full-length recording reviews), I look at what I do as a public service to introduce people to historical works which are generally neglected. I focus on the 19th century because that is my historical specialization (especially Slavic-language operas), but I know OS does great reviews of 18th and 19th century French works which I will probably never get around to reviewing. If you do not already read his blog, check it out!

      Best, Phil.

      Like

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