First recording of highlights from Tchaikovsky's 'lost' first opera, Voivoda
Kovalev conducts a cast of Soviet stars in this special 1952 production of the restored score
Tchaikovsky's first opera, Voivoda as titled on the original Melodiya LPs but now more commonly written The Voyevoda is one of his most obscure works, largely thanks to his destruction of the score. To the best of my knowledge there has been one full recording, also originating in the USSR, and this early double-LP set of highlights or "fragments", which I understand to have been produced for radio broadcast. In terms of sound quality it's very much of its age and origin - not bad, but soon to be eclipsed by recordings made later in the decade. That said, I've heard far worse from western record companies working in the early 1950s!
I've managed to breathe quite a bit of life into a slightly dull and dusty original, whilst battling against peak distortion at higher frequencies during some of the tracks. The titles used for the various tracks here are listed exactly as written on the Melodiya LPs.
TCHAIKOVSKY Voivoda (The Voyevoda) Op. 3 - Fragments from the opera
Marya Vlassievna - Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya
Olena - Lyudmila Legostaeva
Bastrukov - Anatoly Orfenov
Dubrovin - Aleksey Korolev
Voivoda - Daniil Demianov
New voivoda - Mikhail Skazin
Jester - Piotr Pontriagin
Father of Marya Vlassievna - Konstantin Poliaev
Mother of Marya Vlassievna - Z. Sokolovskaya
Moscow Radio Choir and Orchestra
Alexei Kovalev, conductor
Probable broadcast recording, 1952
Transfer from Melodiya D.034303-06
The Voyoveda - a brief synopsis
Act I. Praskov'ia, Vlas Diuzhoi's daughter, is betrothed to Nechai Shalygin, the Voevoda [the town's governor], while her sister Maria is secretly in love with Bastriukov, his enemy; the Voevoda disturbs their tryst. In a matchmaking scene, the Voevoda sees Maria for the first time and chooses her over Praskov'ia, whereupon Bastriukov decides to abduct Maria. At his signal, she comes to him, but they are foiled by Vlas and the Voevoda, who restrain Maria but fail to subdue Bastriukov and his men.
Act II. Bastriukov is pining for Maria when Dubrovin arrives; he has suffered the Voevoda to kidnap his wife and himself to be persecuted. They plan a double abduction for the next night, when the Voevoda will be away on a pilgrimage. In the women's quarters, Maria sings of a captive young woman desiring freedom; Dubrovin's wife, Olena, enters and tells Maria of the plan. The other women return and perform a dance-song.
Act III. The two couples are reunited and sing an apostrophe to the night. Dubrovin and Olena exchange assurances. As they sing of the night again, they are interrupted by the Voevoda, who has returned early. Dubrovin threatens him and is disarmed. The lovers decide to die rather than part again. The Voevoda orders the men held and leads Maria to the women's quarters. As she attempts to break free, fanfares announce the arrival of a new voevoda, who puts matters right amid general rejoicing.
Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky (Oxford University Press, 2009, p.67)
Sleevenotes: Russian Melodiya LP
In January 1866, after completing his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, on Nikolai Rubinstein's suggestion P. Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow. In the autumn of the same year he became professor at the Moscow Conservatory that had just been founded.
Of all the artistic diversions that Moscow could offer Tchaikovsky showed a special liking for the Maly Theatre. At that time many plays of Ostrovsky, whose creative work Tchaikovsky had learned to admire and understand when he was still living in St. Petersburg, were staged by the Theatre. Dwelling of his impressions of the productions of the Maly Theatre, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his brothers the following: "Never before have I experienced such artistic joy as I experience at a dramatic performance."
At that time the artistic, musical and literary circles of Moscow were closely connected with the "Moscow Artistic Society", founded by A. Ostrovsky and N. Rubinstein and it was here that Tchaikovsky became acquainted with many actors of the Maly Theatre. Very soon the composer was introduced to A. Ostrovsky and already in December 1866 Tchaikovsky wrote the music to the latter's historic play "False Dmitri and Vassily Shuisky”, produced by the Maly Theatre.
From the very first days of his residence in Moscow the composer was fired with the idea of writing an opera and in his letters pertaining to that period he complained that he could not find a suitable libretto. As Tchaikovsky had by that time become friendly with the famous playwright it was only natural that he should want to cooperate with him. At first Tchaikovsky wanted to ask Ostrovsky to write a libretto based on his drama "The Storm" which the composer especially admired but as it turned out that the libretto had been already written for another composer Ostrovsky suggested that he write a libretto based on another play of his entitled "The Voivoda or Dream on the Volga."
"The Voivoda" is a historic play of manners. The action takes place in the 17th century in a town situated on the bank of the Volga. The play lacks historic characters and the manners and everyday life of the people of that period are portrayed in a generalized way. The leading character of the play is Voivoda Nechai Shalygin, the vice-gerent of the tsar and a ruthless and profligate man. His tyranny, stupid wilfulness and cruelty have long roused the indignation of the town-dwellers and free-men headed by the robber Roman Dubrovin, who had recently 0scaped from prison into which he had been thrown on the Voivoda's orders. The inhabitants of the town send their messengers to the tsar in Moscow with a letter in which they complain about Shalygin's evil deeds.
But Roman Dubrovin and Stepan Bastrukov have their own scores to settle with the Voivoda for Stepan's betrothed Marya Vlassievna and Dubrovin's wife Olena are held prisoners in Shalygin's house.
Choosing a night when Shalygin is away from home the plotters make the watchmen drunk and steal into the garden that surrounds the Voivoda's house with the aim of freeing the two women. Quite unexpectedly Shalygin returns home. Spending the night in an inn he saw a prophetic dream and decided to return home immediately. It would seem that after they were caught in the act of entering the Voivoda's house the fate of Dubrovin and Bastrukov was sealed, but luckily the messengers return from Moscow with the tsar's orders according to which Shalygin is deprived of his power and a new Voivoda is nominated. The denouement of the play is wrought with satire: some of the townsfolk say: "The old Voivoda was bad enough, what will the new one be like?" and other people answer them, saying: "He'll be like the old one, or maybe even worse!"
In March 1867, on receiving the text of Act I from Ostrovsky, Tchaikovsky began to work at the opera but very soon his work was interrupted by unforeseen circumstances: the composer lost the manuscript of the libretto. All attempts to find the libretto were in vain and in the end Tchaikovsky had to tell the playwright of his loss. Ostrovsky, who always held the composer in high esteem agreed to write another text but as he was extremely busy (he was writing a libretto to Serov's opera "Enemy forces" at the time) his work on the libretto was delayed.
Later Tchaikovsky described the way he completed the opera in a letter to his friend and pupil, S. Taneyev. He wrote: "This very kind man (Ostrovsky) wrote the first act and first scène himself. I started to write the music but after I had written any more. But is so happened that Menshikova, the first act I became disappointed both in the plot and the music and decided to abandon the opera altogether and in this way I did not bother Ostrovsky singer, was looking for a new opera for her benefit performance and she managed to persuade me to finish the opera and so then I somehow put together all the rest of the fragments." It this way the score of "The Voivoda" was ready for production only in the summer of 1868. The première took place on January 30, 1869 in the Bolshoi Theatre and was successful though the performance left much to be desired. The newspapers printed a number of reviews praising the composer. Musicologist Odoevsky made the following entry in his diary: "This opera is a promise of Tchaikovsky's great future".
The composer himself was not too pleased with his opera. Tchaikovsky saw many shortcomings in this musico-scenic work; the libretto was poorer than the play as it lacked many important episodes (for instance its social and political aspect disappeared entirely) and the music, too, did not satisfy him. Tchaikovsky said in his writings: "The opera was written in a hurry and somewhat thoughtlessly and because of this its structure lacks the qualities necessary for a scenic work."
After the fifth performance Tchaikovsky took his score from the theatre and later burned it. Some fragments of the music he later used in other works (the opera "Oprichnik" and ballet "Swanlake”). Apart from this, immediately after the premiere of the opera, the composer wrote a piano "Potpurri" that combines some tunes of the opera.
In our time the score of the opera "Voivoda" was restored by Soviet composers V. Shebalin and Y. Kochurov in cooperation with musicologists S. Popov and P. Lamm. They re-created Tchaikovsky's first opera basing their effort on a number of scores for the orchestra, choir and soloists that had been preserved in the archives of the theatre. In 1949 the restored opera "Voivoda" was staged by the Maly Opera Theatre in Leningrad.
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In 1952, on N. Golovanov's suggestion, soloists of Moscow theatres and the orchestra and choir of Moscow Radio conducted by A. Kovalev recorded some fragments from the opera "Voivoda'' and the recording has been included in this album.
Melodiya D. 034303-06 (as written)
The mature Tchaikovsky’s distinctive operatic voice is already emerging, and his characteristic style is instantly recognizable
Tchaikovsky’s first opera The Voyevoda (or Voevoda), not to be confused with his much later “Symphonic Ballad” of the same name or with Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Pan Voyevoda, is based on the play The Voyevoda, or A Dream on the Volga (Son na Volge) by the well known and prolific Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky (1823–1886). Ostrovsky, who participated in crafting the libretto for this Tchaikovsky opera, was also responsible for the play on which Rimsky’s The Snow Maiden is based. Sources differ on whether The Voyevoda was well received or a complete failure when premiered by the Bolshoi Theater in 1869. It did receive some favorable notices, but the composer himself was dissatisfied with it and withdrew it after five performances. He subsequently recycled some of the music in such works as The Oprichnik, Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture, and others, and burned the score of The Voyevoda. His younger colleague Anton Arensky achieved some success in setting the same libretto (using the play’s alternate title) in the 1880s. Notwithstanding his effort to suppress it, Tchaikovsky’s early opera was not allowed to die and during the Soviet era was reconstructed from sketches and vocal and orchestral parts. According to Richard Taruskin, there were two such reconstructions, the first by Sergei Popov in 1927 and a later one by a team consisting of the musicologist Pavel Lamm and the composers Vissarion Shebalin and Yury Kochurov. The excerpts reissued by Pristine were recorded in 1952. Melodiya recorded the complete opera in 1982, as part of a project to issue all of the composer’s works on disc. Neither of these releases makes clear which of the reconstructions is used, but I would presume it to be the later one.
The opera is set in the 17th century in an unnamed province on the Volga River, and deals with the efforts of the tyrannical and lascivious voyevoda (military governor) Nechai Shalygin to force Marya Vlasyevna, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy merchant Vlas Diuzhoi, into marriage with him. He has already abducted Olena, the wife of Roman Dubrovin, another townsman. Dubrovin conspires with Marya’s fiancé, the young boyar Stepan Bastriukov, to rescue their women from Shalygin’s clutches during his absence. Their plan is disrupted by his unexpected return, but popular unrest over his misrule impedes his effort to regain control of the situation. Word then arrives from Moscow that the Tsar has ordered Shalygin removed from power and has sent a new voyevoda to replace him. The opera concludes amid general rejoicing.
I must confess that I have had the 1982 recording on Melodiya LPs in my possession for decades but never got around to playing it. My listening for this review is thus my first encounter with the opera, and given the composer’s inexperience at this point in his career, I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of much of the music. The mature Tchaikovsky’s distinctive operatic voice is already emerging, and his characteristic style is instantly recognizable. The melodic writing is often influenced by the Russian folk idiom, and several actual folk melodies are incorporated. Even before completing the opera, Tchaikovsky became disillusioned with its subject matter, finding that it was “shorn of dramatic interest and movement,” but the libretto does provide many opportunities for passionate outpourings and colorful, evocative genre scenes, of which he took full advantage. It is true that there are some stretches of routine or repetitious writing, and some of Tchaikovsky’s reservations about the libretto seem well founded. It is surprising, for example, that in the final act, when the lovers are reunited, most of the attention is devoted to Dubrovin and his wife, with the ostensible hero Bastriukov and his beloved moved to the background.
The excerpts on the Pristine disc comprise less than half the opera, and those who opt for that release alone will miss out on a good deal of interesting, colorful music. In addition to the Overture, Pristine provides a bit less than half of act I, nothing from scene 1 of act II, three-quarters of scene 2, and less than half of act III. There are also several internal cuts in the segments included on the Pristine reissue. Both recordings offer effective, energetic, dramatically charged leadership, good orchestral and choral work, and fine casts. Under conductor Aleksei Kovalev, the orchestra in the earlier performance plays with more spontaneity and abandon, while Vladimir Kozhukhar, in the 1982 recording, secures greater precision and imposes tighter control. Both Daniil Demianov (Pristine) and Vladimir Matorin (Melodiya) possess strong, powerful bass voices and are excellent in the title role; Demianov’s slightly abrasive timbre suits the role well, and he is the more menacing of the two. In the tenor role of Bastriukov, Anatoly Mishchevsky has the more heroic voice, albeit with some fast vibrato that can roughen his tone a bit and with some effortful high notes. He projects the character’s anger and desperation powerfully in his second-act aria (not included on the Pristine disc). Anatoly Orfenov’s instrument is “whiter” and predominantly lyric in character, reminiscent of such contemporaries as Sergei Lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky in its timbre. As Marya, both Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya (Pristine) and Galina Kuznetsova (Melodiya) exhibit the traditional bright upper range and full chest voice of Russian sopranos, with a minimum of the proverbial Slavic wobble. Except for a bit of strain in a couple of high notes, Kuznetsova is eloquent in the aria “The nightingale sings so loudly in the grove,” which Marya sings while a captive of the voyevoda. We don’t get to hear Rozhdestvenskaya in that number; she appears only in duets and ensembles on the Pristine disc. Liudmila Legostaeva (Pristine) and Iuliia Abakumovskaya (Melodiya) display fine mezzo voices in the role of Olena; that of Abakumovskaya is warmer and richer in tone. The role of Dubrovin is given to bass Aleksei Korolev in the earlier recording and to baritone Oleg Klenov in the later one. The part lies a bit high for Korolev, but he handles the high notes well and delivers his third-act aria with passion and fervor. Klenov, too, is excellent, almost matching Korolev in tonal weight. Other sonorous bass voices are heard in the role of the merchant Diuzhoi, in which Leonid Zimnenko (Melodiya) and Konstantin Poliaev (Pristine) are equally convincing. On Melodiya, Nina Isakova is excellent in the mezzo role of Nedviga, Marya’s nurse (not included in the Pristine excerpts).
I do not have the original LP from which Pristine’s reissue is derived, but the sound of the Pristine disc is certainly better than one would expect from a Melodiya recording of this vintage. The traditional Melodiya glare is substantially reduced although not eliminated, and the reissue offers a more spacious ambience and detailed texture than is typical of early 1950s Melodiya LPs. The voices are solid and well defined and free from distortion. Still, even after the ministrations of Pristine’s Andrew Rose, the 1952 recording is hardly competitive with the later stereo version in terms of sound quality. The 1982 recording, although still overly bright and sometimes glaring, predictably offers still more spaciousness, depth, and detail as well as superior dynamic range. Its greater clarity is very beneficial in the dense texture of the ensembles, although reverberation sometimes blurs the voices a bit in peaks. The balance in the later recording places the orchestra more strongly in the picture when accompanying the vocalists, which is also desirable.
Pristine renders the title of the opera as Voivoda, which Rose states is the way it is given on the cover of the Melodiya LP used in his transfer, but this transliteration makes little sense either phonetically or orthographically. The word should be transliterated as either voyevoda or voevoda; I prefer the latter version, as it conforms to Library of Congress transliteration rules, but I defer here to past Fanfare usage. Rose also perpetuates the asinine practice, in the title Pristine Soviet Series, of writing the letter “R” backwards in a misguided effort to simulate Russian lettering. The letter of the Russian alphabet that resembles a backwards “R” is not an “R” at all and has no relation to that letter. It is a letter called “ya” that is pronounced that way and is also the Russian equivalent of the pronoun “I.” Writing the “R” backwards does not make something Russian. It shows that the perpetrator hasn’t a clue about Russian. Lovers of Russian opera have reason to be grateful to Rose for his refurbishment of older Melodiya recordings, but this foolishness detracts from the seriousness of his enterprise.
The Melodiya CD set also has some presentation issues. There is, of course, no libretto (Melodiya never provides one). The synopsis offered is sketchy, and the notes are perfunctory. The synopsis attributes the announcement that Shalygin has been deposed to “old boyar Bastriukov” (i.e., Stepan’s father), but no such character is mentioned in the cast list of either recording. According to the vocal score I consulted, it is the new voyevoda himself who makes the announcement. The original Melodiya LP release included relevant excerpts, albeit untranslated, from the 1961 book Chaikovskii i muzikal’nyi teatr (Tchaikovsky and Musical Theater) by N. Tumannaya, the most detailed discussion of this opera I have come across. Given the rarity and obscurity of this opera, it would have been helpful to include this information with the CD reissue as well. There is also much inept English translation in the Melodiya CD booklet. The most obvious example is that the word kartina is translated as “picture,” with act II thus divided into “picture 1” and “picture 2.” That is indeed one of the meanings of this word, but in the context it obviously means “scene.” Both Pristine and Melodiya need better language consultants.
Notwithstanding these complaints, devotees of the operatic Tchaikovsky will find both these releases essential. If limited to one, I would opt for the 1982 recording, since it is a performance of comparable quality overall, in superior sound, and, of course, complete.
This article originally appeared in Issue 38:5 (May/June 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.