Gogol's poem Dead Souls formed a compulsory part of the school literature programme. Pupils were tormented by writing essays on the characters of Chichikov, Plyushkin and Nozdryov, serfdom, or rather the lawless state of the Russian people prior to the Bolshevist revolution. In a word, instead of joy, the writer was burdened by enmity and boredom. And he was even forced to cut the text of the lyrical deviation "Eh, a troika, a troika-bird..." This text contained a literary interpretation of the belief of the writer in the bright future of his people. And that future was our Soviet life...
And so when I took to considering the libretto for the opera, the first thing I resolved was the following: not to include the text of the "Troika-Bird", to do without it. That was, probably, my first impulse in creating the idea of the opera Dead Souls.
This dream lived within me for ten whole years. First consideration, then reading and rereading the great book, notes of the most important things for the musical dramaturgy of the text, sketching the music. And, lastly, the joys and the tortures of working every single day. No contracts, promises, guaranteed theatres or production dates - absolutely nothing of that kind at all.
Rodion Shchedrin. Autobiographical Notes
The birth of the opera Dead Souls is one of the most significant events in the history of music in the 20th century. A vivid event, an unexpected one, but one for which the path was laid by the whole preceding development of Russian (and not just Russian) opera.
Gogol in Russian Opera. In the 19th century, this great Russian writer was one of the most popular suppliers of opera plots. Almost every great classical composer turned to his works: from Musorgsky (the experimental recitative The Marriage and the songfully lyrical Sorochintsy Fair) to Rimsky-Korsakov (the two "nights" - May Night and Christmas Eve) and Tchaikovsky (the opera Vakula the Smith, or Cherevichki). In Gogol, the 19th century saw a lyrical poet, a witty chronicler. And hence the prevalent method of interpretation - in the spirit of a folkloric, colourful, lyric and true-to-life drama. The 20th century, with its sharp change of orientation, took a new stance on Gogol's subjects. Out went light, idyllic tones, in came fantasy, social satire and biting grotesque. This was the reading of Gogol given my drama theatre directors (first and foremost Vsevolod Meyerhold), while in musical theatre the tone was set by Shostakovich with his brilliant The Nose. Shchedrin's Dead Souls partly include both traditions while they remain deeply individual. While vividly portraying the Russian "dead soul", the composer always remains within the realm of reality. Hyperbole never develops into mockery and serves only a special psychological truth, thanks to which the characters of the opera, it would seem, are just about to come off stage and live their own lives. The music of the opera opened up new shades of Gogol's lyricism - melancholic, shrilly Russian and devoid of any hint of pastorale.
Shchedrin the Composer. He approached the creation of this opera with all the weaponry available to a composer, with a deep knowledge of Russian musical folklore and of the achievements of professional European music. By crossbreeding the intonation means of Russian folk song with elements of dodecaphony, the traditions of Italian opera buffa with the recitative innovations of Russian composers, Shchedrin created an integral operatic style where Gogol's imagistic world is expressed in the most veracious, the most authentic terms.
The Triumvirate of Geniuses. In his memoirs, Shchedrin writes that he wrote the opera "for himself", not thinking of contracts or specific theatres. However, by the time when the work was totally complete, the powers to stage it had also evolved sufficiently. News that Shchedrin had completed a new opera based on Gogol's Dead Souls sped like lightning in theatre circles. Culture Minister Pyotr Demichev proposed a hearing of the opera first at the Ministry and later before the Artistic Council of the Bolshoi Theatre. Without paying attention to the "dangerous" moments (which were highlighted only after the premiere) the Artistic Council took the decision to stage the work. It was directed by the great Russian opera director Boris Pokrovsky, with Shchedrin inviting Yuri Temirkanov to conduct. These three geniuses created a vivid, innovative work where Pokrovsky introduced elements of conditional theatre (double-balconied stage, dozens of carbon-copied Chichikov, numerous governor's daughters). The premiere of Dead Souls at the Bolshoi Theatre took place on 7 June 1977. One year later, Yuri Temirkanov staged this production at the Mariinsky Theatre, with Sergei Leiferkus dazzling in the role of Chichikov.
In the last thirty years the opera Dead Souls has been produced extremely rarely in Russia. Its performance in concert at the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall is an important event in the music life of St Petersburg and the on-stage "destiny" of this work.