Six to ten: Russian Literature on stage
A further five adaptations of famous Russian works.
With Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin, John Cranko’s Onegin and Michel Fokine’s The Firebird coming up in the Winter Season, we continue our focus on Russian literature with five other works that have been adapted to the operatic and balletic stage. For the first five adaptations, see our previous feature.
The Firebird – based on Russian folk tales
Legendary in Russian folklore, the Firebird is a majestic creature from a strange land, with magical powers and is a harbinger of both good news and disaster. The most popular version of the tale is Ivan Tsarevitch, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf, in which Prince Ivan goes on a quest to retrieve the feather of the elusive Firebird. His search takes him on a dangerous journey to the home of Kastchei the enchanter. Mikhail Fokine’s balletic take on The Firebird was given its premiere by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1910. The music for the ballet was written by Stravinsky, and was his first ballet score.
The glorious melodies and energetic rhythms of Stravinsky’s music, combined with Fokine’s lively choreography, catapulted one of Russia’s best-loved fairytales into the 20th century. The Firebird was Stravinsky’s breakthrough piece, and paved the way for future collaborations between the composer and Diaghilev, including two more pieces inspired by popular Russian culture: Petrushka and the iconic The Rite of Spring, the Kenneth MacMillan version of which staged so memorably by The Royal Ballet.
Anna Karenina – based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Considered by Tolstoy to be his first true novel, Anna Karenina is one of the classics of world literature and has been consistently popular since its publication in 1877. Anna Karenina tells the tragic tale of society beauty and married woman Anna Karenina and her affair with the young officer Count Alexis Vronsky. The latter offers to marry Anna if she can get a divorce from her husband but, in the conservative world of 19th-century aristocratic Russian society, things are far from straightforward.
The novel has been adapted for both the operatic and balletic stages on a number of occasions, including an operatic version by Iain Hamilton. Commissioned by English National Opera in 1978, it had its premiere at the London Coliseum in 1981. Anna Karenina has most recently been transformed into a ballet by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. His interpretation compressed the action of Tolstoy’s substantial novel into just 90 minutes and two acts. Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina was performed at Covent Garden by the Mariinsky Ballet in 2011.
The Queen of Spades – based on the short story by Alexander Pushkin
An opera by the brothers Tchaikovsky – Pyotr Ilyich composed the music (in only 44 days) and Modest Ilyich wrote the libretto – The Queen of Spades is based on a cautionary short story by Pushkin about the dangers of greed. The opera, with a superb score, was an immediate success on its premiere in 1890 and is regularly performed to this day.
Pushkin’s story tells the tale of the officer Gherman, who becomes obsessed with obtaining an unfailing formula for winning at cards, possessed by an elderly Countess. Intent on making his fortune by gambling, he pursues the Countess, determined to find her secret, and seduces her granddaughter Liza to help him in his quest. Tchaikovsky made several important alterations to the story when creating his opera. His Gherman and Liza (unlike Pushkin’s) are genuinely in love with each other, and Gherman is drawn to gambling partly so that he can win money to marry Liza. Liza also becomes a far more important and more tragic figure in Tchaikovsky’s opera.
Away from the stage, the opera recently cemented itself in Russian popular culture through the title phrase of the popular TV show What? Where? When?, drawn from the line ‘What is life? It is a game!’ from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s opera.
Boris Godunov - based on the play by Alexander Pushkin
The most recorded Russian opera after Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov was Modest Musorgsky’s only completed opera and is considered to be his masterpiece. Two versions by the composer exist, but are rarely performed in their original form. Many opera companies perform the version of the opera edited by Rimsky-Korsakov; another version exists edited by Shostakovich.
Boris Godunov is based on Pushkin’s play dramatizing the life of the 17th-century Tsar Boris Godunov, who allegedly murdered the Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, son of Ivan the Terrible, in order to obtain the crown. The composer was inspired by the Shakespearean dramatic style of Pushkin’s drama, written in 1825 but not performed until 1866, two years before Musorgsky began work on his opera. Over the following five years, the composer created one of the most quintessential Russian operatic masterpieces. The role of Boris has become an iconic part of the operatic bass repertory, with famous Boris Godunovs including Fyodor Chaliapin, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Boris Christoff, Matti Salminen, René Pape and John Tomlinson.
Kat’a Kabanová – based on the play The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky
Leoš Janáček was 67 when in 1921 his Kat’a Kabanová, the first in a series of four great operas written late in his career, had its premiere. The opera is based on Russian writer Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm. Although his profile has since diminished, Ostrovsky was a towering figure of Russian literature during Janáček’s time, and one who inspired music by other distinguished composers including Rimsky-Korsakov (the opera The Snow Maiden) and Tchaikovsky (an overture inspired by The Storm and the opera The Voyevoda).
Kat’a Kabanová and its source, The Storm, tell the story of the dreamy and idealistic Kat’a, trapped in a loveless marriage, bullied by her tyrannical mother-in-law, and dreaming, hopelessly, of breaking free. Kat’a finally rebels; her confession of her guilt takes place against the background of a demonic storm, hence the title of Ostrovsky’s play.
The Royal Opera most recently staged Kat’a Kabanová in 2007, in Trevor Nunn’s production. The conductor was the late Charles Mackerras, a strong champion of Janáček’s work.
Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin opens on 4 February, while The Royal Ballet perform John Cranko’s Onegin from 19 January. Mikhail Fokine’s The Firebird will be performed in a mixed programme alongside In the Night and Raymonda Act III on 22 January. In the meantime, Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, opens in cinemas in the UK on 7 September.