Pushkin is such a revered figure in Russia that even the very idea of creating an opera about him was contentious. As librettist Marita Phillips said ‘reducing Pushkin to a mortal can amount to blasphemy’, and the thought of him appearing on a stage was still unconscionable to many.
To Phillips, however, herself a descendant of the writer, researching and creating the work was a way of getting closer to the man. She wrote the libretto over fifteen years, and then in 2012 conductor Jan Latham-Koenig introduced her to Konstantin Boyarsky, a Principal Violist at the Royal Opera House, who subsequently composed the music. The opera enjoyed a concert performance by the Novaya Opera in Moscow on 4 February 2017, but these current performances at Grange Park Opera, presented by the same company, constitute its staged premiere.
The story explores the relationship between Tsar Nicholas I and Pushkin. The Emperor wants to use the writer’s appeal to unify the Russian people, but Pushkin finds himself unable to bend to producing simple propaganda. He does create the poem The Bronze Horseman about Peter the Great, which he believes to be the best thing he has written, thinking it will please the Tsar by associating him with the iconic leader. However, Nicholas is dissatisfied and orders him to change it, which is something he cannot do.
At the same time, the young Frenchman D’Anthès, adopted son of the Dutch Ambassador Heckeren and husband to Catherine, the sister of Pushkin’s wife Natalya, seems intent on ensuring Natalya is unfaithful. As Pushkin feels forces close in all around, he challenges D’Anthès to a duel. He is subsequently killed, but the implication is that he wanted to die, seeing no use in a world where he no longer felt able to write and thus lacking any channel for expression.
The opera explores the differing fortunes of Pushkin and Nicholas I after their deaths as much as when they lived. The beginning reveals the demise of Nicholas with the mourners uttering how he will be remembered for as long as man is alive. As is confirmed at the end, however, their words are simply clichés when sung to Nicholas, but apply completely to Pushkin. Indeed, Nicholas himself concludes that he will only be remembered as the man who was Tsar when Pushkin was alive.
Igor Ushakov’s staging is extremely simple, but no less effective for that. The stage is generally kept bare, only with a few props placed upon it to convey a home setting or, through a set of ascending steps, the Tsar’s palace. The set-up is fluid enough so that characters in different scenes and locations can exist simultaneously in the same area. More interesting, however, is the fact that even when people are supposedly together they often feel disconnected, which is conveyed by having separate squares of light, courtesy of Timofey Ermolin, fall on each. Not only does this reveal the detached nature of Pushkin, a man who is so unable to conform, but it also suggests that we are all individuals, thus implying why Nicholas finds it so difficult to unite ‘the people’ because they are not a single entity to begin with.
The music does not possess the type of sonority associated with many new operas, with much of it feeling extremely tuneful and lyrical, and there being nods to a range of Russian composers. However, while in places the score can feel derivative, the sheer variety of influences, coupled with the odd surprise, holds our attention, and the sheer power and beauty of much of the music makes the evening frequently moving. The score at the start, when we see the people mourn the death of Nicholas I, seems reminiscent of a soundtrack to an Eisenstein film, but, of course, it was Prokofiev who wrote several of those. Bells ring as they might in a Mussorgsky opera while there is also a capella chanting in the Russian Orthodox tradition. At the same time, a little of the solo singing feels more in the Western musical theatre tradition as if the tunes might have come from Les Misérables.
The libretto is in English because Phillips felt an element of detachment was required in order to view Pushkin a little more from the outside. However, it does include some of the poet’s writings, and these remain in Russian. Most of his own words are spoken, but a highlight of the evening is when Yaroslav Abaimov playing Heckeren sings one of his poems absolutely beautifully.
The amount of time devoted to music, with no words, is quite large, which is significant because when, for example, Peter Auty’s Pushkin contemplates his love for Natalya, his exaggerated gestures alongside the music could almost put him in a silent movie. The crowds of people are intelligently placed so that sometimes they stand in orthodox formations, while at others they hint at a disparate society going about its business. In this way, the second half of Act II stands as something special as the music carries the same tinge of ‘dysfunctional menace’ as Shostakovich’s waltzes, with the chorus confronting Pushkin in threatening lines or stirring up the air as they move around. Here, choreographer Sergey Satarov has ensured that within a general circle each couple takes on one of several different poses to hand the sense of mass activity a disconcerting edge.
Peter Auty is strong in the title role as he really conveys the way in which Pushkin becomes increasingly shaken and isolated as the evening progresses. His excellent tenor occasionally feels strained, but this does aid character, and it is always spot on at those moments when it really needs to be. The highest vocal honours, however, go to Artyom Garnov whose rock solid baritone as Tsar Nicholas I is a thing of wonder, and Julietta Avanesyan as Natalya whose soprano is imbued with subtlety and intrigue. The Orchestra of Novaya Opera, Moscow, under the baton of Jan Latham-Koenig, is on top form, and the result is a very moving evening exploring one of Russia’s greatest figures.