RUSSIAN WHITE NIGHTS: OPERA ARIAS FROM 18TH CENTURY ST. PETERSBURG
Karina Gauvin, soprano, Pacific Baroque Orchestra/ Alexander Weimann: Works by Fomin, Bortniansky, dall’Oglio, Araja and Berezovsky, Chan Centre, May 6, 2018.
It was an inspired idea for Vancouver Opera to invite Early Music Vancouver to collaborate on a ‘white nights’ project as part of their nine-day Russian-themed festival. The resulting concert, featuring opera arias from the late baroque and classical eras, gave the audience a sample of the music heard at the St. Petersburg court more than a hundred years before Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Though not distinctively ’Russian’ opera, it was revealing to hear Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin give persuasive advocacy to compositions by Russian composers that had been neglected for two and a half centuries. She was sensitively supported by Alexander Weimann and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.
While it is customary to suggest that Russian opera formally begins with Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836), it is recognized that a thriving Russian interest in opera stretched back to the 1730s, and the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg was the most conspicuous consumer of this form of entertainment. Most of the performances were provided by Italian composers, singers, and musicians who were visiting the court, yet there were also occasional contributions from home-grown talents who had trained abroad. Of the five composers on the present program, two – Domenico dall’Oglio and Francesco Araja – were Italian by birth. The other three composers, Yevstigney Ipatievich Fomin, Dmitri Stepanovich Bortniansky and Maxim Sozontovich Berezovsky, were either Russian or Ukrainian-born, and had studied in Italy for several years before returning home to compose for the Imperial Court. Opera in the Russian language was by no means unheard of in the 18th century but opera with a foreign language libretto proved far more popular at this time. Interestingly, the first operas written with a Russian text were not written by Russians: these included the Italian Araja’s Tsefal i Prokris, staged in Saint Petersburg in 1755, and Alceste (1758) by German composer Hermann Raupach. In both cases, the libretto was by Alexander Sumarokov, the esteemed Russian poet and playwright.
All the musical selections chosen for this concert stayed close to contemporary Italian idioms, though there were two French arias as well. The earlier operatic excerpts on the program, from Araja’s La Forza dell’Amore e dell’Odio (1736) and Berezovsky’s Demofoonte (1773), have strong echoes of Alessandro Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Adolf Hasse. As in much opera seria of the period, the arias tend to be in da capo form, with vocal statements punctuated by brief orchestral ritornelli, and the music projects a strong motivic and affective unity. The later operas, including Bortniansky’s Alcide (1778) and Le Faucon (1786), exhibit a nascent sonata style and thematic dualism that suggests Haydn and Mozart. The remaining instrumental items – Fomin’s overture to Postal Coachmen at the Relay Station and dall’Oglio’s “Cossaca” Sinfonia – have titles that might suggest something enticingly Slavic in their musical DNA, but this was not really the case.
Karina Gauvin brought intensity and commitment to the wide range of roles demanded by this program, including the heroic male roles in the operas Alcide and Demofoonte which were originally written for castrati. This was an accomplishment on its own. Some may find Gauvin’s vibrato slightly too heavy for this repertoire, but her French and Italian enunciation was impeccable and her use of ornamentation was judicious and subtle. Her voice always projected clearly, without a hint of strain, and balance between the voice and the instrumental ensemble was excellent throughout.
For this performance, the Pacific Baroque Orchestra comprised 22 musicians, including 14 strings with continuo, along with pairs of flutes, oboes, horns, and one bassoon. The playing of the orchestra was fully enjoyable, with vitality and rhythmic buoyancy in equal measure, though there were a few moments of rough intonation for the oboes in the first half of the program. In the midst of the excerpts from Berezovsky’s Demofoonte, we were treated to a movement from his Violin Sonata in C major, ravishingly played by concertmaster Chloe Myers and Maestro Weimann.
This concert served as a most rewarding exploration of a historical byway that most opera lovers would not know. Very few who have followed the genre of Italian opera in the hands of Handel, Gluck and Mozart would naturally think of St. Petersburg in the same breath. Yet the same influences dominated, and Russian composers of the time just as eagerly gravitated to this style.
© Nicolas Krusek 2018
Photo Credits: Jan Gates, Michael Slobodian