Often thought of as a challenging repertoire for both performers and audiences, Russian opera represents a diverse and impressive body of work. From opulent historical dramas to absurd philosophical fairy tales, there’s something to please all kinds of opera lovers.
Today we’re swapping our “toi, toi, toi” for “Ни пуха, ни пера” as we dive right into the rich repertoire with a playlist of our favorite Russian operas…
1. Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (first version completed in 1869)
Without a doubt the most emblematic of all Russian operas, Boris Godunov ticks all the nationalist boxes: a drama recounting a memorable period of Russian history; a Russian-language libretto based on a play by national hero Alexander Pushkin; a heroic principal role and tragic depiction of a pained people; and a composer from the celebrated group of Russian composers known today as “The Five.”
The work’s creation was decidedly messy and saw numerous revisions by Mussorgsky himself and his contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov, many of which were enacted in order to meet the exacting standards of the Russian censorship committee and strict regulations governing what types of figures could and could not be depicted on stage. The powerful Coronation Scene—which required special approval from the Tsar—is particularly well-known today both for its dramatic significance and Mussorgsky’s rich and deeply symbolic score combining folk-inspired melodies; brass “bells” ringing a tritone apart; and a worrying, circuitous woodwind theme into an ominous whole…
2. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mstensk (1934)
Few moments in classical music history are more legendary than the fateful night in 1936 when Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s politically- and sexually-charged hit opera, Lady Macbeth of Mstensk. While the opera had won over audiences both at home and abroad since its premiere two years earlier, Stalin would leave before the final act. A couple of days later, the opera was lambasted in the government newspaper Pravda as “Muddle instead of Music:”
From the very first moment, listeners are stunned by the deliberately dissonant and confused stream of sounds… the music quacks, hoots, pants, and gasps in order to express the love scenes as naturally as possible.
Like its titular character, Lady Macbeth the opera suffered a swift fall from grace. When it returned several decades later—after Stalin’s death and under a different name—it had been significantly changed. While it’s often the original version we see in the West today, the revised version continues to be performed regularly in Russia. Although Shostakovich’s career overall eventually regained its course, he would never compose another opera.
3. Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951)
Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress follows protagonist Tom Rakewell’s money-fueled, Devil-driven descent into madness. Premiered in 1951 at Venice’s famed La Fenice theater, the opera quickly caught on internationally and saw productions in five countries in just as many years. Inspired by a series of eighteenth-century prints by William Hogarth, the libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman is underpinned by a timeless moral, stated explicitly in the final moments: “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.” The theme has inspired diverse interpretations, drawing for example on the eighteenth-century prints that shape the opera’s story, or the Hollywood glitz and glamour Stravinsky may have encountered upon moving to Los Angeles.
Today, The Rake’s Progress has the honor of being one of the most performed twentieth-century operas in the repertoire—some claim the most performed opera written after the death of Puccini. While celebrated Russian music scholar Richard Taruskin has argued that the work is more “an opera by a Russian” than “a Russian opera,” since, at the time of its composition Stravinsky had spent more than half his life abroad, we’ll include it on our list anyway.
4. Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (1921)
In the spring of 1918, as he prepared to leave Russia for the United States, Prokofiev received a parting gift from director Vsevolod Meyerhold: a Russian adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s L’amore delle tre melarance, an eighteenth-century Italian commedia dell’arte. By the time his ship arrived in San Francisco, Prokofiev had turned it into a rough draft of an opera libretto. The somewhat absurd plot centers around a hypochondriac young Prince and the jester hired to entertain him in the hopes of curing his various maladies. After a riotous prank poking fun at a witch, the Prince finds himself cursed with a tireless passion for a trio of oranges, which turn out to be more than they first appear…
5. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (1890)
The Tchaikovsky brothers’ (yes, brothers) adaptation of Pushkin’s beloved novella has been heralded as both a masterpiece in the genre and an audacious attack on a literary masterwork. Composer Pyotr and his librettist brother Modest took significant liberties with the original text, expanding the cynical 10,000-word story into a nearly three-hour opera, and weaving a veritable love story into the plot.
The tragic opera centers around Hermann and his pair of inextricably linked obsessions: Lisa, the ward of a rich Countess, and gambling, which he hopes to master with the help of the Countess’s magical secret.
Composed in just over six weeks, Tchaikovsky’s rich score is a treasure trove for analysis, drawing on the emerging Russian symbolist movement; a wealth of religious imagery; and numerology, with the numbers of the Countess’s winning cards—no spoilers!—embedded into the structure of the score on multiple levels.
Want more? See our full playlist of Russian operas here!