The Taming of the Shrew after the comedy by William Shakespeare is the only opera written by Vissarion Shebalin (1902–1963). The idea for the work emerged when the composer had been evacuated and was living in Sverdlovsk. Initially Shebalin wanted to write an operetta, but the music was too serious and the work was transformed into an opera.
The libretto was written by Abram Gozenpud, Head of Literature of the Sverdlovsk Musical Comedy Theatre, who later became famous as the author of the fundamental encyclopaedia Russian Opera Theatre. Gozenpud was also a historian of literature and translator of Shakespeare. However, despite his thorough knowledge of the source material in many scenes in the libretto he departed from the original. Shebalin was satisfied – following the premiere he replied to compliments with the words “it contains a strong libretto.”
Following on from operetta, The Taming of the Shrew attained clarity of form, it was easy to grasp the solo vocal parts played a huge role – arias, ariosos and songs. These include Petruchio’s monologue “She fell in love with me for my bravery”, a parody of Otello’s monologue “She fell in love with me for my torment”.
Tragic events of 1948 influenced the work as it progressed. Having only just received the title of People’s Artist, Shebalin was unceremoniously fired from his post as Director of the Moscow Conservatoire and was banned from teaching. Having suffered a heart attack, he completed the score using his left hand as his right was paralysed. Nevertheless, this opera about Italians during the Renaissance era is full of optimism. The songs about love in it are merry ones, in a similar spirit to Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery.
At that time Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter, based on the same comedy by Shakespeare, appeared in the USA. In the 1950s, thanks to a screen version, it became known in the USSR, and critics made their point very clearly: “While American businessmen selected Shakespeare’s timeless comedy from the genre as a means of advertising ‘jazz and the American way of life’ the Soviet composer interpreted it as a hymn of all-conquering love. While the comedy – even in its native country – is generally seen firstly as a view of rough male power with its physical superiority overcoming womankind, Soviet operatic theatre has succeeded in depicting the poetic beauty of distinctive and real human characters, equals in their own emotions. ‘Wherever love’s light has shone there are no lords or slaves!’ This phrase taken from Petruchio’s declaration of love in the finale of the opera could serve as an epigraph to Shebalin’s whole work.”
In 1955 VTO Soviet Opera Ensemble gave a concert performance of The Taming of the Shrew. The stage premiere took place on 25 May 1957 in Kuibyshev. On 6 August the same year it was performed for the first time at the Bolshoi Theatre and the music immediately recorded. The Taking of the Shrew began its triumphant “procession” to various Soviet theatres. Performers of Shebalin’s opera have included Galina Vishnevskaya, Tamara Milashkina, Yevgeny Kibkalo and Arthur Eisen. In 1959 the work was staged at the Opera Studio of the Leningrad Conservatoire.