Russian Romances: The Scenes and Arias in Perspective

Written by AVA Administrative Associate Stephen J. Trygar
Cover photo by Don Valentino from AVA’s 2018 Russian Romances


All over Philadelphia, homes, businesses, parks, and streets are being decked for the holiday season. Tiny lights twinkle across the city, and colorful ribbons and evergreen trees decorate the facades that line the sidewalks. These lavish designs beckon cold travelers into the warm shops, restaurants, and theaters throughout the town. We invite you to traverse a beautifully festive Spruce Street down to the Academy of Vocal Arts next week, and escape the cold to cozy up to our program of Russian Romances. Tickets are still for sale, and they can be purchased on the AVA website or by calling (215) 735-1685.

AVA Russian Repertoire Vocal Coach Ghenady Meirson is the music director and pianist for Russian Romances. I had the honor and pleasure of being able to sit down with Mr. Meirson to discuss what his intentions and inspirations are with this year’s program. To take a look at the program and the Resident Artists that will be performing, visit the 2019 Russian Romances page on the AVA website!

Whether he is staging a full Russian opera with piano accompaniment, like his stagings of Rubinstein’s The Demon or Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, or delighting us with a collection of scenes, arias, or songs from various Russian masters, Mr. Meirson’s goal is to expand AVA’s Resident Artist’s individual repertoires for them to take to auditions and ultimately prove their versatility as opera singers. This year’s program focuses on particular scenes within the Russian opera repertoire. Most of the scenes have the capacity to fit multiple arias, duets, and/or larger groups of singers. Several of the operas Mr. Meirson has extracted from for this performance have been featured in his Russian Opera Workshop summer program and remains in the workshop’s repertory. “Russian Opera Workshop currently has a repertory of ten operas, the kind of repertory that could be produced on the Met stage,” says Mr. Meirson. He continued to explain that this list of operas has aided his endeavors of not only bringing Russian opera to a wider stage, but has also helped his students become more marketable and grow as professionals.

All of the selections are scenes plucked from larger Russian operas. Mr. Meirson has provided small synopses of each of the scenes on the Russian Romances page on the AVA website. Below I have provided larger synopses of each of the operas in order to give context to each of the scenes on the program. Each scene is supplemented with information provided by Mr. Meirson in his interview with me. All involved in this concert are eager to share these incredible pieces with you! We look forward to seeing you on December 17th and 19th for Russian Romances.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Eugene Onegin, Op. 24

The impassioned and romantic Tatyana and her younger, carefree sister Olga sing a love song together in their family garden. After their mother, Madame Larina, scolds Tatyana for blurring the lines between reality and the fictitious worlds of her novels, Olga’s fiancé Lensky and his friend Eugene Onegin arrive to the Larin estate. While Lensky and Olga spend the afternoon exclaiming their love for one another, Onegin confides in Tatyana of his boredom in the country and the inheritance of a nearby estate given to him by his late uncle. That evening, while restless and unable to sleep, Tatyana pours out her feelings of love in a letter to Onegin. In the morning, she anxiously awaits Onegin’s arrival, but he arrives only to reject her advances. Weeks later, a name day ball is being given in honor of Tatyana. Irritated by gossip of him and Tatyana, Onegin avenges himself by dancing and flirting with Olga. A jealous Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, and the next morning, Lensky loses that duel when Onegin’s bullet delivers the fatal blow. Onegin finds himself alone at a ball in the home of Prince Gremin five years after the death of his dear friend. He is taken aback when he sees the now elegant, aristocratic, and beautiful Princess Tatyana entering into the hall with Gremin, her husband. Realizing he is in love with her, Onegin arranges a meeting with her, but he is unable to win her back. Although she still loves Onegin, she is determined to remain faithful, and she leaves him alone and in despair.

As Eugene Onegin is the most recognizable of the seven operas on the program, Mr. Meirson chose two scenes from the opera that showcases several of the other incredible roles that are not Tatyana and Onegin. Due to the size of Prince Gremin’s part within the opera, we have the pleasure of presenting the entirety of his role in the second scene, sung by our bass Brent Michael Smith. Furthermore, these selections aim to showcase the lesser known pieces from Eugene Onegin, such as Lensky’s Act I Arioso, sung by tenor Zachary Rioux, instead of the popular aria found in Act II.

Yevgeny Onegin by Ilya Repin

Mazepa

In the garden of the Cossack Kochubey, on the banks of the Dniepr, the Cossack Andrey professes his love for Kochubey’s daughter, Mariya; however, she loves the elderly hetman Mazepa. Greeted with a gopak danced by peasants, Mazepa approaches Kochubey to gain his blessing and ask for Mariya’s hand in marriage. The old cossack refuses his consent, saying Mazepa is far too old for his youthful daughter. Unhappy with the decision, Mazepa argues with Kochubey, and Mariya again declares her love. Vengeful, Kochubey sends the willing Andrey to Moscow to denounce Mazepa to the Tsar for conspiring with the Swedes. The Tsar, refusing to believe Kochubey’s accusations against Mazepa, arrests the cossack and chains him to a pillar in the palace dungeon. Taking advantage of the imprisoned Kochubey, Orlik, Mazepa’s henchman, tortures him and demands to know where he keeps his treasure. Failing to extract the information, Orlik and Mazepa plan to execute Kochubey the next day. Ignorant to the unfolding events, Mariya and her mother arrive at the execution just as the axes fall. Weeks later, Mazepa’s forces are defeated at the Battle of Poltava. Andrey returns to Kochubey’s garden and hides when Mazepa and Orlik approach. In an attempt to avenge his friend and father of his beloved, Andrey is mortally wounded. Mazepa discovers Mariya wandering about the garden in a daze, but is forced to flee without her. She stumbles upon the dying Andrey, and she sings him a lullaby as he passes on.

Mazepa is “a powerful and wonderful piece,” says Mr. Meirson. “We have a dramatic scene with two basses” sung by Eric Delagrange and Cody Müller. This scene from one of Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed operas, a scene without any true aria in it, is saturated with melodic material and instrumental flair.


Iolanta, Op. 69

Blind since birth, Princess Iolanta has been living secluded from the world in an enclosed garden on the king’s estate. Despite Iolanta’s growing suspicion, King René insists she never learn of her blindness. Ibn-Hakia, a famed Moorish physician, tells the king that Iolanta can be cured, but she must be made aware of her blindness in order for the procedure to work. Robert enters into the king’s court with his friend Count Vaudémont. He reveals that he wishes to avoid the arranged marriage with Iolanta, as he has fallen in love with Countess Matilde. Vaudémont finds the entrance to Iolanta’s secret garden, ignoring the warnings threatening death to anybody who enters. He finds a sleeping Iolanta and instantly falls in love. Robert, having never met Iolanta, believes she is a sorceress who has bewitched Vaudémont. While Robert rushes off to bring troops for a rescue mission, the love-stricken count discovers his beloved is blind and he teaches her what light and color are. They are discovered by the king, and he threatens to execute Vaudémont for ignoring the signs and revealing the truth to Iolanta. In an act to try to save her love, Iolanta agrees to the treatment. The king reveals his threats were a ploy to give her the strength to undergo the procedure. After a successful surgery, Iolanta enters into her court with the world now visible to her.

After the dark and tragic atmosphere hanging from Mazepa, the program moves towards a happier one with Duke Robert’s popular aria from Iolanta, sung by Timothy Renner, where he professes his love for Matilde and not his fiancée Iolanta.

Charles XII of Sweden and Ivan Mazepa after The Battle of Poltava by Gustaf Cederström

Pique Dame, Op. 68

Herman, an officer with a gambling addiction, is in love with a woman above his station whose name he does not know. While strolling in the Summer Garden in Saint Petersburg, he discovers that his beloved is Lisa, the granddaughter of the Countess and betrothed to Prince Yeletsky. When the Countess and Lisa have left, Herman learns that the Countess is the fabled Queen of Spades, who lost and regained all her wealth with three cards. Aside from herself, the Countess has only told two other people, and a third “suitor” has been prophesied to kill her for the secret; ignoring the prophesy, Herman vows to learn the Countess’ secret. That night, Lisa voices her unhappiness with her engagement. She was stirred by the romantic look of the young man (Herman) in the park, and is shocked to find him standing on her balcony. He claims he is about to shoot himself over her betrothal to Yeletsky, but she takes pity on him and welcomes him into her embrace. A few days later, Herman receives a letter from Lisa asking to meet her after the evening’s festivities. Waiting for Lisa, he slips into the Countess’ room to trap the old woman and uncover the mystery . She dozes off for a short while until the desperate Herman wakes her up and demands her secret. She dies of fright. In a final attempt to forgive and reunite with Herman, Lisa asks him to meet her by the pier at midnight. Before he can leave, the ghost of the Countess appears to Herman and reveals her secret. Herman finally appears at the pier, but he only cares about the newly obtained secret; Lisa realizes that all hope is lost, and she commits suicide. At the gambling house, Herman’s fellow officers finish eating and begin playing faro. Herman joins in the game and wins with the first two cards, a three and a seven. His third card, an ace, loses to the Queen of Spades. With the Countess’ ghost laughing at her vengeance, Herman takes his own life and asks for Yeletsky’s and Lisa’s forgiveness.

Photo by Paul Siorchman. Includes Michael Adams, Armando Piña, Dominick Chenes, Alasdair Kent, Anthony Schneider, Jonas Hacker, and Jared Bybee in Pique Dame.

In my interview, Mr. Meirson made a point to mention that the Countess’ aria, sung on this program by mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, is built with pieces of different French songs. First, her recollections of youth are introduced with the French song “Vive Henri Quatre” followed by the aria “Je crains de lui parler la nuit” from André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur-de-lion.


Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)

The Demon

During a storm in the Caucasian mountains, a chorus of evil spirits calls upon the Demon to destroy all of God’s creation. An Angel interjects and pleas with him to reconcile with heaven. The Demon sees Tamara by a river and falls in love with her. Without fully appearing to her, the Demon promises her the world if she returns his love. Fascinated yet frightened, she returns to her castle and waits for her fiancé, Prince Sinodal. As the prince makes his way to her, the Demon appears to him and vows that the prince will never see Tamara again. His caravan is suddenly attacked by Tatars, and he is killed protecting it. At the castle, the wedding festivities have already begun. With the news that Prince Sinodal’s caravan has been delayed, Tamara senses the presence of the Demon and fears the worst. The prince’s body is brought into the castle, and the Demon’s supernatural voice rings in Tamara’s head. She begs her father to end her suffering by letting her enter a convent. At the convent, Tamara is plagued by thoughts of the Demon, who persistently appears in her dreams. Summoning the courage to appear before her in reality, the Demon declares his love for her. Tamara resists her attraction to him but fails. The Demon kisses her in triumph. The Angel appears with the ghost of Prince Sinodal. Horrified, Tamara struggles out of the Demons arms and falls dead. The Angel proclaims that Tamara has been redeemed by her suffering while the Demon is damned to eternal solitude.

Rubinstein’s rarely performed opera The Demon returns to AVA with a scene between Tamara (Emily Margevich) and the Demon (Timothy Murray). The opera has been performed by both AVA and the Russian Opera Workshop, and its tragic tale of forced love fits well into the theme of the program. The scene gives the two title roles a chance to sing one aria each, followed by a duet.

Photo by Don Valentino. Including André Courville as Prince Sinodahl’s (Marco Cammarota) servant in The Demon.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Aleko

A band of gypsies has set up camp for the night on the bank of a river. Warm by their fires and properly fed, they gather around an old gypsy who tells them of his former lover, Mariula. She deserted him for another man, leaving behind their child Zemfira. Now, Zemfira has grown up and lives with a Russian, Aleko, who has abandoned civilized life for the life of a gypsy. Aleko is outraged that the old gypsy didn’t exact revenge on Mariula, but Zemfira disagrees. Zemfira believes, like her mother, love is free. Aleko’s possessiveness has tainted their relationship, and she now loves a younger gypsy. The evening’s festivities die down, and Zemfira meets with her young lover before disappearing into her own tent to look after her child. Aleko broods on his failed relationship with Zemfira, and he finally catches her and her new lover together. Tormented and enraged, Aleko kills them both. Hearing the screams of the young lovers, the gypsies gather to catch the murderer. Led by Zemfira’s father, the gypsies spare Aleko’s life and cast him out forever.

Aleko has been programmed with the Russian Opera Workshop in previous years. Mr. Meirson recently coached AVA alumni Michelle Johnson when she performed the role of Zemfira in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of the opera. By pairing the Old Man’s Tale with the Duettino from the opera, Mr. Meirson is showing how the old man’s failed marriage is happening again with his daughter.


Francesca da Rimini, Op. 25

The ghost of Virgil leads Dante through the circles of the Inferno. Descending into the second, Virgil explains that this is the realm where sinners of lust are punished. Their punishment is to be buffeted by an eternal whirlwind. Dante picks out two such souls, Francesca and Paolo, and asks them to tell their story. The deformed Lanceotto Malatesta admits to his wife, Francesca, that he no longer takes pleasure in war. He knows that Francesca does not love him. She had been tricked into thinking she would be marrying his brother Paolo, and now he is suspicious of their love affair. Lanceotto, learning the truth of his wife’s distaste of him, leaves for war. Alone, Paolo and Francesca declare their love for one another. Although Francesca initially resists, trying to remain faithful to her husband, she gives in to her desires. Lanceotto witnesses the two together, and he fatally stabs them both. Dante is overcome with pity and terror as the two recede into the whirlwind of the second circle; to remember a time of joy in a time of despair is the greatest torture.

“Mahler used to love this kind of stuff,” Mr. Meirson exclaims. “The orchestration is monstrous … It’s huge! On the piano, it’s just a wall of notes! For the singers, it is demanding and exquisite writing.” In his final statements about the program, he wanted to mention how the program returns full circle. Francesca da Rimini‘s librettist was the young brother of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Modest Tchaikovsky.

The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer

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