A Life for the Tsar
was Glinka’s first opera. Before Glinka there had been an opera on the same subject by Catterino Cavos (Ivan Susanin
, 1815), relating the story of the Kostroma peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who gave his life for the newly elected Tsar Mikhail Romanov. But it is Glinka’s work, superb in every respect (music language, drama, a perfect balance of the whole and the details), that is justly considered to be the first Russian classical opera.
A Life for the Tsar was influenced by Handel’s oratorios, operas by contemporary composers, especially by Italian masters of belcanto. But all the influences merged and became facets of Glinka’s unique style. A Life for the Tsar is an opera congenial to Russian spirit, in which ordinary people are for the first time shown as heroes and their speech is full of Russian song intonations. The parts of Susanin, Antonida and Vanya sound a la russe, and the opera’s grandiose final chorus Glory has become Russia’s unofficial anthem. Russian images are brilliantly contrasted with a suite of European dances: Polonaise, Krakowiak, Waltz and Mazurka. The juxtaposition of songs and dances – contrasting images characterizing the Russians and the Poles– is the composer’s brilliant find.
In the Soviet era the opera was tempered with by ideology. The Bolshoi production of 1939 was focused on a heroic deed in the name of Motherland and the Poles’ search for the Tsar was turned into a search for Minin. Nevertheless the new title Ivan Susanin referred to Glinka’s originally chosen title. The poet Sergey Gorodetsky wrote a new libretto, which was literary excellent. One of the excuses for rewriting the original libretto was poetical defects of Baron von Rozen’s libretto. The result was a virtually different opera to the same music.
It is only natural that since the late 1980s the opera has been performed in its original version. However, A Life for the Tsar does not appear often in opera houses because of its large-scale and phenomenally difficult vocal parts.
Novaya Opera presents a semi-staged version of the opera in the year of the centenary of the last Russian Tsar’s execution. Subsequently (as it often happened before) the theatre intends to put on a full-fledged production of the piece.
*The performance features Daria Sintsova's sketches for Glinka's Life for a Tsar.