The latest in a series marking the 75th anniversary of the the Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcasts. This month, in advance of the Met's broadcast of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppaa on March 18, a look at the history of Russian opera at the company.
In the last quarter century, the rich, varied repertory of Russian opera has been more fully
discovered by western audiences through recordings and touring companies. Valery Gergiev, artistic
director the Mariinsky Theatre and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, has been
particularly instrumental in sharing the wealth of Russian opera with audiences here and in Europe.
This season, the Met's first ever production of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, a co-production
with the Mariinsky, receives its broadcast premiere on the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera
International Radio network on March 18, 2006.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Russian opera was slow to be introduced at the Met. Tchaikovsky's Queen
ofSpades was the first Russian opera given at the Met, in German, on March 5, 1910, under
the baton of Gustav Mahler, with Emmy Destinn and Leo Slezak in the cast. It was performed only four
times before disappearing from the Met for more than a half-century. Tchaikovsky's Eugene
Onegin finally appeared at the Met in 1920 with another illustrious cast, Claudia Muzio, Giovanni
Martinelli, and Giuseppe de Luca, conducted by Artur Bodanzky, but it too failed to enter the repertory
with any frequency until it returned in 1957 in a new production by Peter Brook.
Critical reaction to the Met premieres of both Queen of Spades
and EugeneOnegin seem perverse today when both works are generally acknowledged
masterpieces. In both cases, critics found the Pushkin stories on which the works were based poor
subjects for an opera. The New York Telegraph called Queen of Spades a "somewhat
childish story," and the eminent critic H.E. Krehbiel sniffed of Onegin, "A more inane
and amateurishly constructed opera book is not conceivable." Perhaps the real source of his condescension
was reflected in the headline of his review, "Eugene Onegin Given Hearty Greeting Here--Tschaikoffy's
[sic] Opera Awakens Unusual Interest in Public, Especially on the Lower East Side."
The one Russian work to gain immediate popularity at the Met was the most
iconically "Russian" of all, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which had its Met premiere in
1913, and has been performed on a regular basis ever since. It was precisely the lack of specifically
Russian character that some early critics deplored in Tchaikovsky's works. "Of the national color
which constitutes the strength and charm of the operas by Mussorgsky and Borodin there is none except
the songs of the reapers and maidens in the first scene," wrote Krehbiel of Onegin. The perceived
"Italianate" nature of the arias and duets, emphasized by the fact that the opera was sung in Italian,
was another negative for many of the religiously Wagnerite critics of the day.
Tchaikovsky's two most famous operas have been broadcast from the Met
on numerous occasions, Eugene Onegin ten times since 1957, and Queen of Spades,
four, beginning in 1966. Mazeppa, only the third of Tchaikovsky's nine extant operas to
be performed by the Met, is a sweeping historical drama with a vibrant, impassioned, romantic score
that is sure to be a revelation for audiences in the opera house and listening to the broadcast around