A Life for the Tsar is not the first opera created in Russia, but it is the first Russian opera. That is no pun, but rather the essence of a turnabout that took place in in the history of Russian music following the premiere of this operatic masterpiece on 27 November 1836 at the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre (the site is now occupied by the building of the St Petersburg Conservatoire). Operas had been written by Russian composers long before Glinka: The Carriage Accident by Vasily Pashkevich, The Miller Who Was a Wizard, a Cheat and a Matchmaker by Mikhail Sokolovsky and The Novgorod Hero Boyeslayevich and The Coachmen at the Horse Stage-Post by Yevstignei Fomin. But even Russian plots and the timid and enlightened pathos of these activities could not shed the genre of opera of its status as an imported product where everything – the dramaturgy, musical language and manner of singing – remained true to the “refined” Italian framework. Moreover, in the 18th century opera remained an entertainment for high society, and the opera house merely a place where a person of noble birth could “relax in civilised surroundings”.
The 19th century was another affair. At that time, opera in Europe was becoming “the most important of arts” and each grand premiere had a huge public resonance. And so, in the general space of European culture it was opera that began to fulfil a role as a unique cultural indicator of the achievements of individual national traditions. Russia entered the 19th century as a major European power, confirming its new status by freeing Europe from Napoleon’s expansionism. A great power required great art. For Russia the time had come to declare itself not just through its economic growth and victories in conflicts and politics. The time had come to promote Russian art, which meant not just art produced in Russia but specifically Russian art, at the same time original and of European significance.
All of this, without doubt, was also felt by Mikhail Glinka when he was searching for a plot for his “grand dramatic opera”. The story of the achievement of a simple peasant from Kostroma who sacrificed himself in order to save the life of the young Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich and rescue Russia from foreign invaders was perfectly suitable for an expansive and heroically patriotic drama; in the plot there is war, there is love, there are scenes of folk life and there is the contrasting image of the culture of the invaders. In the plot, it was unexpected for contemporaries to see that a weapon of victory in war was not the talents of a crowned military leader but rather the courage of a provincial simple man. Ultimately, the public was shocked by the world that Glinka brought onto the stage of the Imperial theatre – peasant life, portraits of simple people and the poetry of the Russian way of life. And the corresponding musical language: Russian folkloric melodies, heterophonic choral polyphony and Orthodox prayers. Folk heroes and folk music had descended to mere amusing pastoral scenes, but were in no way permitted in a serious musical drama, on stage embodying the idea and the spirit of the triad “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, only recently accepted as a weapon to defend the national idea: the folk heroine Susanin perishes, saving not only the Russian autocrat but also Russian Orthodoxy from the Catholics of a different creed.
In the new (2004) production of A Life for the Tsar the Mariinsky Theatre turned to the original version of the opera with the libretto by Baron Rosen. Entire generations of audiences had become accustomed to Sergei Gorodetsky’s Ivan Susanin in which the ideological accents and motivation behind the characters’ actions are mixed up and adapted to the conceptual framework of Soviet opera. The original libretto returns the Autocracy and the Orthodoxy to the opera – the components of the famous triad in which, according to stage director and production designer Dmitry Chernyakov “the Russian conscience recognised itself”. This is why Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar came to be a “true expression in the eternal consciousness of the Russian soul and Russian fate” (Dmitry Chernyakov). But in this production the stage director also risked altering the ideological accents, driving a wedge into “the Russian triad” albeit from the other side – revealing in the opera new problems that have become current in our own time, problems of civil society, human rights, personal responsibility and collective morality. The courage and even the aesthetic radicalism with which the stage director accentuates Russia’s problems today within the complex of Glinka’s “eternal themes” immediately after the premiere incited a contradictory argument in Russian musical society: there were epithets ranging from “masterpiece” to “scandal”. But all agree on one thing: Dmitry Chernyakov’s production of A Life for the Tsar is a contemporary and “thinking” production, each gesture by the director reflecting the pain for “Russian destiny” – not as a spiritual abstraction but as a living, pulsating co-existence of people today.