Among the Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin, written by Pushkin in the autumn of 1830, a special role in Russian literature was prepared for The Stationmaster; as if inheriting Karamzin’s sentimental Poor Liza, Pushkin’s tale was the first to speak of “the little man”.
Both Akaky Akakievich from Gogol’s The Overcoat and Makar Devushkin from Dostoevsky’s novel Poor Folk are from the same class and share the same destiny as that of the unfortunate Samson Vyrin, the protagonist of The Stationmaster. Makar Devushkin, staggered by the plot of Pushkin’s tale, exclaims that “And how many Samson Vyrins are going about amongst us, poor dears.” Today in the village of Vyra not far from St Petersburg there is a museum called The Stationmaster’s House. It is not so much a tribute to the literary character as it is a memorial to the age – with all its customs, both everyday and “ethereal”. The latter word, apropos, is rather inappropriate for the world of “poor folk” – here people do not philosophise, they do not argue about “the moral law that exists within us”, they simply call us to our consciences and feel compassion.
Alexander Smelkov’s opera The Stationmaster was composed in 1998. Having undertaken the melodramatic plot, the composer was not drawn by the trickery of postmodernism that allows everything to be made ironic, to be pushed aside, to regard everything with thinly veiled snobbery. Simply speaking, he didn’t even write a warm-hearted parody of the genre. Quite the reverse, together with the librettist Albina Shulgina he increased the melodrama of the narrative. And he defined the genre of the work very precisely as an “opera-romance”. Already in Dunya’s first song “A dark blue cloud sprinkled water on the nettle by the porch, and the beautiful daughter shamed her honoured father...” one can hear intonations of a “cruel romance”. This is both the introduction to the opera and a brief retelling of Pushkin’s tale which is well-known to Russian readers.
In trying to enter the distant past, Smelkov does not rush to use stylisations. In order to get into the timescale it would be sufficient to put on a mask and put on a costume as was worn two centuries ago. But in order to get into the spirit of the age you don’t have to wear someone else’s dress, but rather, as they say, get under the skin of your characters and really look at them. And we hear this in the music of the opera – in Minsky’s frivolous romance “Love on the road”, the trio heralding disaster “The bell is already tolling...”, Simon Vyrin’s mournful lament “Ah, Dunya, Dunya! What a girl she was!”, the “Grand polonaise brillante” which opens the scenes in St Petersburg and the “Broken polonaise” which heralds the tragic finale.
For the production of The Stationmaster at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre (27 April 2011) the composer instrumented the opera for symphony orchestra (taking as an example Glinka’s Valse-fantasie as a dazzling musical reflection of the era). But a chamber opera for three performers is more fitting for and answers better to the nature of the genre of an accompanying trio – the violin, clarinet and piano.
In the composer’s original version of the opera more than ten years ago, it was performed by soloists of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Opera Singers. Today the opera will be performed by academy students of the next generation.