89. A Life for the Tsar (Mikhail Glinka)

Жизнь за царя

By Mikhail Glinka

First composed: Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, St Petersburg, 9 December 1836


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This will probably be my last post for a while.  It’s increasingly feeling like a chore – three hours of watching and listening to opera, which I could spend reading or watching other things.

A Life for the Tsar is the first truly “Russian” opera: a historical pageant, full of patriotic exhortations.

It’s a Russian version of French grand opera: historical subject with a personal love story, a large role for the chorus, and action unfolding in tableaux.

Briefly, the peasant Ivan Susanin outwits the extravagantly moustachioed Poles at the cost of his life to save the first Romanov Tsar, Mikhail.

Once the Communists came to power in 1917, the libretto was revised, the title changed to Ivan Susanin, and Ivan became a hero of the people.

Musically, much of it is glorious, from the a cappella chorus that opens Act I, and becomes a double chorus.  Highlights include the daughter’s aria, and a fine trio in Act I; the Ivan/Vanya duet in Act III, and the wedding quartet (one of the finest ensembles in opera); and the tenor aria in Act IV.

As an opera, it’s a flop.  There’s simply not enough plot for a three-hour opera.  Act II is the worst offender; much of it is taken up with ballet, and a lively tune is plugged again and again.  Nor is there any drama.  All the Russians are good, and the Poles are a menacing chorus.

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