We started the evening with an opera that I worked for several months to acquire. Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, who was born in 1804 and died in 1857, was a Russian composer who is regarded by many as one of the fathers of Russian classical music. He had a great deal of influence on Russian composers, especially the circle of composers known as The Five (Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, and Mily Balakirev), and he helped start the chain of history that led to the existence of a distinctly Russian style of classical composition.
Glinka wrote Ruslan and Lyudmila between 1837 and 1842, basing it on a poem by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin had planned to write a libretto for the opera, but was killed in a duel with a French calvary officer. So the libretto was written instead by Valerian Shirkov, Nestor Kukolnik and N.A. Markevich, and it was premiered in 1842. Although the opera displays a great deal of Italian influence (Glinka had studied in Milan), there are a number of traits on display that would later come to distinguish Russian classical music, and Russian opera in particular, from the rest of the repertoire: the use of bass singers in lead roles, the strong choral arrangements, the use of Russian folk songs as musical inspiration. Glinka was not directly responsible for the strength of the Russian classical tradition, but did much to lay the foundation for what was to come.
I find the bass role of Ruslan, sung here by Vladimir Ognovienko, to be especially notable. There is a long line of excellent Russian bass singers, which includes Osip Petrov (the originator of the role of Ruslan), Mark Reisen, Nicolai Ghiarov, Feodor Chaliapin, and Fyodor Stravinsky (father of the composer Igor), and many of the great Russian operas give primary roles to basses. The role of Ruslan has to rank among the great bass roles.
Tonight’s performance is a 1995 recording, with a Russian cast led by Vladimir Ognovienko (the bass who sings Ruslan here, and who gives an excellent performance), Anna Netrebko (another one of her early roles) and Larissa Diadkova (a leading Russian mezzo-soprano). The Kirov Chorus and Orchestra is led by Valery Gergiev.
For our second opera, we’re going to hear a classic example of the verismo style of operatic composition. Pietro Mascagni wrote his one act opera Cavalleria Rusticana as part of a competition held in 1888. The competition was for new Italian composers who had not yet had an opera performed on stage. Mascagni heard about the competition three months before the deadline, but was able to compose and submit his opera on the very last day of the competition, with the help of his friends and librettists Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. The opera was selected as one of three finalists in the competition, and at its premiere in 1890 won the first prize after a sensational performance that incurred 40 curtain calls for the composer.
Although the opera is one of only a few of his 15 operatic compositions to remain in the regular repertoire, it has been performed regularly in opera houses around the world, and has been recorded over 120 times, in many cases paired with I Pagliacci, the work by Leoncavallo that is frequently paired with Cavalleria Rusticana in performance. Cavalleria Rusticana is also notable in that it was the subject of the very first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, on December 11, 1910 (with the great Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn in the lead roles). In addition, the opera’s symphonic Intermezzo was used in the movies Raging Bull and The Godfather Part III, which featured a performance of the opera as part of the movie’s climax.
Tonight’s performance is a 1965 recording that features a great Italian cast, headed by Firorenza Cossotto and Carlo Bergonzi. Herbert Von Karajan leads the Orchestra & Chorus Of La Scala Milan.