Russian literature on the stage
One to five: operatic and balletic adaptations of famous Russian works.
From Pushkin’s poetic Eugene Onegin to Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina, Russia has produced some of the world’s greatest works of literature. With Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for The Royal Opera opening in February, and Onegin and The Firebird onstage this Winter, we take a look at ten adaptations of famous Russian works.
Lady Macbeth of Mtensk District, by Nikolai Leskov
Nikolai Leskov’s short novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District was originally published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch in 1865. A tragic and murderous tale set in 19th-century Russia, it tells the story of a lonely woman driven to adultery, murder and finally suicide. Shostakovich’s operatic version, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, first performed in Leningrad in 1934, was a huge hit at its premiere. However, when Stalin saw the production in 1936, he disliked it, and the opera was condemned by the Communist Party and all but vanished from the repertory for 30 years. Rediscovered in the later 20th century, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is now acknowledged as one of the gems of the modern operatic repertory. Richard Jones’s award-winning production was last performed at the Royal Opera House in 2006.
The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky’s dramatic The Gambler is based in part on Dostoevsky’s personal experience of being a compulsive gambler. Written in 1866, the novel was completed in just 26 days as Dostoevsky was under great pressure to pay off debts. Prokoviev completed his operatic adaption of this brilliantly-written tale in 1917, writing his own libretto, but the opera wasn’t staged until 1929. It had its world premiere in Brussels, and the text was translated into French. One of Prokofiev’s first operas, it has never been among his most popular works. However, Richard Jones’s stylish and energetic production, which had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in 2010 and featured stellar performances from a cast including Roberto Saccà (as the hero Alexey), John Tomlinson (as the swaggering General), Angela Denoke (as Polina, the object of Alexey’s obsessive love), Kurt Streit (as the caddish Marquis) and Susan Bickley (as Polina’s fierce grandmother, Babulenka), was very well received.
Dostoevsky’s vast final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was also made into an opera. Commissioned by The Mariinsky Theatre, with music by Alexander Smelkov, it had its premiere at The Barbican in 2009.
A Month in the Country, by Ivan Turgenev
Alexandra Ansanelli as Natalia Petrovna and Ivan Putrov as Beliaev in A Month in the Country © Dee Conway/ROH 2008
Ivan Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country is considered to be one of the greatest of his dramatic works. Written in France between 1848 and 1850, it was premiered in Moscow in 1872 and is still widely performed today. A five-act play following the love affairs of frustrated housewife Natalya Petrovna, it mixes love with both comedy and tragedy. Frederick Ashton’s ballet, set to music by Frédéric Chopin, was one of the last works Ashton created for The Royal Ballet and features some of his most exquisite choreography. The production had its premiere with The Royal Ballet in 1976, and was most recently performed on the Covent Garden stage in June and July 2012.
Watch Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell in the lead roles
Turgenev’s play has also been adapted to the operatic stage. Set to a score by American composer Lee Hoiby with a libretto by William Ball, it had its world premiere at the New York City Opera in 1964.
Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Written in 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov’s novella Heart of a Dog was swiftly banned in the Soviet Union and not republished there until 1987. The tale follows the story of a stray mongrel. Taken in by a mad scientist, the dog is given an organ transplant that transforms him into a human; he goes on to wreak havoc in the home of his creator and in society. A sharp satire on Communism and a criticism of eugenics, it provides juicy material for an opera, not least because the star of the show is a dog. Alexander Raskatov’s opera on Bulgakov’s novella, A Dog’s Heart, with a libretto by Cesare Mazzonis, had its UK premiere at the English National Opera in 2010. The virtuoso production, by Simon McBurney, included superb puppet work and dramatic staging. Bulgakov’s great novel The Master and Margarita (which features a devilish talking cat) has also been adapted to the operatic stage, but never with convincing success. Written in secret in Stalinist Russia, it is a satirical fantasy based around a visit paid by the Devil to Moscow. Andrew Lloyd Webber once announced that he was going to turn the work into a musical or opera, but then conceded that the novel was too complex to adapt to the stage.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace is acclaimed as one of the greatest works in literature. A massive chronicle that follows the Napoleonic invasion of Tsarist Russia with meticulous detail, dealing with life both on the battlefield and at home in Moscow and St Petersburg, it would seem almost impossible to adapt to the operatic stage. Prokofiev laboured over the score during the last years of his life, making numerous revisions and amends in an attempt to secure the Soviet seal of approval. The final version, a four-and-a-half-hour work with a libretto by Mira Mendelssohn, is basically a series of tableaux, focusing on individual characters and moments in the drama rather than trying to convey the whole vast narrative. The opera War and Peace was first staged in Britain by the Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1972, and in 2000 the Kirov Opera performed Andrei Konchalovsky’s production at the Royal Opera House. War and Peace was performed by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 2007, with former Jette Parker Young Artist of The Royal Opera Marina Poplavskaya as the heroine, Natasha.
Watch this space for a further five stage highlights from Russian literature.
Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin opens on 4 February, while John Cranko’s Onegin opens with The Royal Ballet on the 19 January. Mikhail Fokine’s The Firebird opens in a Russian-themed mixed programme with In the Night and Raymonda Act III on 22 January. In the meantime, Joe Wrights film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, opens in cinemas in the UK on 7 September.