The Marriage (1868) is an innovative opera composed by the young Musorgsky at the height of the extant traditions of musical theatre. Here the composer used the text, almost unaltered, of Gogol´s prose, setting himself the task of recreating in music «human speech in all its most subtle nuances». The Marriage was left uncompleted – Musorgsky wrote only the first of the initially planned three acts, and it remained, moreover, un-orchestrated. The only performance during the composer´s lifetime took place in a circle of like-minded musicians who formed the so-called «New Russian school». Stunned by the «unbelievable merits» of The Marriage, at the same time they doubted the possibility of performing it at a contemporary opera house: the manuscript of the work lay forgotten in the depths of St Petersburg´s Public Library right up until 1906 when Rimsky-Korsakov considered the time was ripe for it to be «discovered» and he began preparations to have it published. The opera´s first concert performances to piano accompaniment took place only forty years after it had been written and long after the composer´s own death.
The Marriage may force us to agree with the theory that the music came from the spoken word, as a stylisation of its natural accents. Musorgsky´s characters speak in this vernacular in almost the same way as people in everyday life, and at the same time they sing. The composer translates precisely into musical language the various speech intonations, raising all their characteristic features to the most supreme artistic vibrancy. And like Molière´s Monsieur Jourdain, amazed at the discovery that he has been speaking in prose all his life, audiences at The Marriage are surprised to discover that they have spoken their whole lives in recitative! Musorgsky´s search for truthful expression of the intonations of human speech that brought about this turning to a prosaic text was entirely natural: in literature, to which opera is inextricably linked, a similar trend towards simplicity and naturalness resulted in a reorientation towards prose even in the first half of the 19th century. Cui (William Ratcliff) and Dargomyzhsky (The Stone Guest) were also in Musorgsky´s close circle, working at the same time as him, as well as towards the same end. But here, as in everything else, the composer was most «pro-impertinent» (his own expression): unlike elder contemporaries whose searches remained within the confines of poeticised, highly romanticised subjects traditional for musical theatre, Musorgsky turned to the satire of Gogol´s «utterly improbably occurrence». One can imagine how stunned the audience of the time would have been by the sound of such «low» expressions, as «promoted» by the music, at expressions seemingly inadmissible for singing, such as «the lying dog», «the arrant fool», «the Devil take it!» and so on, when even a reference to everyday, prosaic items like polish, boots, a bench, collars or starch would be a source of mirth.
The analytical writing method discovered in The Marriage played an important role in forming the composer´s style, though the significance of this opera transcends well beyond the confines of Musorgsky´s art alone. It was this that opened up the strong-willed «Gogol» line in musical theatre and many subsequent treatments of Gogol´s satire in opera have not been left untouched by its influence.
At the Mariinsky Theatre, The Marriage is being performed in an orchestration commissioned by Valery Gergiev in 1991 from Professor of the St Petersburg Conservatoire and Honoured Artist of Russia Vyacheslav Lavrentievich Nagovitsin. Vyacheslav Nagovitsin has devoted a vast amount of his energies to Musorgsky´s legacy – it was he who prepared the composer´s first opera Salambô for production, presenting it in two different orchestral versions (these versions have been performed on numerous occasions both in Russia and abroad). Vyacheslav Nagovitsin approached the instrumentation of The Marriage creatively, and he has not attempted to stylise Musorgsky: his aim was the creation of his own, contemporary version, in which he has striven to emphasise and portray the composer´s innovative vocal discoveries in the most favourable light possible.
The Opera of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich by major contemporary Russian composer and professor at the St Petersburg Conservatoire Gennady Banshchikov was commissioned in 1971 by the Kirov Theatre. The Theatre's proposal of a Gogol theme was close to the composer: in his childhood he had often spent the summers in Gogol's homeland, visiting famous Gogol places and intently reading the writer's books.
This Mirgorod tale of a quarrel between two landowners is an absolutely up-to-date story of how people have not been and remain unable to come to an agreement with one another. It is highly probable that all world conflicts arise from "trifles", mere nothings. In the opera, Banshchikov the first part of the tale, stopping where Ivan Ivanovich in shame is driven from the courtyard of his former bosom friend. The whole history of the lengthy, interminable lawsuit of Mirgorod's landowners remained beyond the scope of a one-act work, or, it could be said, a developed opera scène.
The action, such as it is, is practically nonexistent here (unless it is a peasant woman chancing to hang out a rusty gun together with the laundry) and the "drama" unfolds in a deeply chatty, dialogue form. Gogol's text is used unchanged and retains its richness and imagery of language, the amazing moulding of the characters and the absurdity of the various situations. Although Gogol's laughter relates least of all to situation, but rather to how that situation is recounted. And the composer has succeeded in giving the opera that particular essence of Gogol's prose - the essence of what is funny, of what lies in the unexpected, of what is expressed in the paradoxical non-correspondence of the insignificance of chance and the deep seriousness of how it comes about. The counterweight to the chamber scene is enacted by the full (triple) orchestra, and its role is significant: in terms of the symphonic development of the material, the opera may be compared with the vast musical dramas of Wagner and Richard Strauss (Banshchikov highly regarded the latter and dedicated the work to him). The author's first ironic gesture can be found already in the introduction in the form of a not-so-subtle hint at Beethoven's Heroische Symphony: here, love the "heroes" of my imagining. The main theme of the opera comes with the Ukrainian song I Am Surprised at Heaven by 19th century composer Zaremba, whose naive, simple melody blends so well with the local colour and nature of the characters, and is subjected to refined transformations, reflecting the entire palette of conditions and emotions of the Mirgorod landowners in the struggle to possess the "object of passion". The composer is not afraid to combine utterly contrasting styles - and isn't that a reproduction in musical means of Gogol's manner of juxtaposing the heavenly and the earthy, to relate a mediocre anecdote with refined artistry, using the most refined literary language?
In The Opera of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich, there is indeed truly much that is witty. Comical with its seriousness and serious with its comedy, it subtly recreates the atmosphere of Gogol's tale.