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Opera buffa in one act after Pushkin’s The Little House in Kolomna

Libretto by Boris Kochno

Russian composers virtually invented the notion of nationalism in concert music. The Mighty Handful, or Mighty Five (Moguchaya kuchka), as they are sometimes dubbed, were a group of 19th-century Russians who strove to create a clearly Russian sound in the concert hall and the opera house. The five composers – Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov – were influential, even shunning the “establishment” music conservatories and their injurious Western European ways. The “Five” were quite successful, actually, credited with creating a grittier Russian sound and bringing the conception of national music into the consciousness of composers everywhere.

Rimsky-Korsakov eventually joined the St. Petersburg Conservatory, though, and became part of the establishment himself. He even went so far as to “polish” and orchestrate works by at least one composer of the “Handful,” Mussorgsky, the most famous example being a reworking of A Night on Bald Mountain which might better be described as recomposition.

Though Rimsky-Korsakov taught at the conservatory, he had not been schooled in the conservatory and he still retained a freshness attributable to his association with the Five; his teaching and his philosophies would influence several generations of young Russian composers, most especially Igor Stravinsky. Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky’s first – some would say most important – composition teacher.

Not surprisingly, the young Stravinsky rebelled against the established ways of his teacher, several times over in fact, with The Rite of Spring perhaps being the most mutinous. Once into his “neo-classical” period, though, it might seem as if Stravinsky had awoken, as if in a Modernist nightmare, come to his senses, and himself joined the canon of accepted practice, arms wide open to the Glorious Past…

Hardly.

Mavra was a distinctly Russian-themed work in which Stravinsky specifically chose to thumb his nose at the Mighty Handful and their penchant for writing operas based on whimsical Russian folk and fairy tales filled with magic and fanciful folderol. In Stravinsky’s not-so-humble opinion, they had overlooked the artist whom he believed equivalent to Italy’s Dante or Germany’s Goethe: poet Alexander Pushkin, who – along with Tchaikovsky – was, in Stravinsky’s view, a “classic Russian”. Stravinsky wished to “unite the most characteristically Russian elements with the spiritual riches of the West.”

In order to do just that, Stravinsky chose the rhymed verse of Pushkin’s The Little House in Kolomna as the story for an opera. A libretto was created by Boris Kochno, the personal secretary of Stravinsky’s friend and associate, dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. Stravinsky modeled his musical setting after 18th-century opera buffa (Italian opera with a comedic or light-hearted storyline and occasional spoken dialogue). Stravinsky dedicated Mavra “to the memory of Pushkin, Glinka, and Tchaikovsky.”

The storyline of the opera is quite whimsical. Set in a small Russian town, the opera begins in the living room of a middle-class family as the young Parasha works on her embroidery. She meets the eyes of her neighbor, Vasili, through a window, and they fall in love. They sing a duet. Parasha’s mother mourns the death of the old cook Thekla, and laments the household’s lack of servants. After searching for servants, Parasha has an idea: why not dress up Vasili as a woman, introducing him as the new cook (Mavra), and have it all? After pulling off this caper, Parasha and Vasili rejoice. Unfortunately, Vasili (now Mavra) is nervous about being caught and decides he must shave to keep from being found out. It’s a bad decision: the mother catches him shaving and confronts him. He panics and leaps out of the window. End of story.

One of the composer’s challenges was to set Russian syllables in the flowing, melodic manner of Italian opera buffa. Not an easy task, and several detractors, Maurice Ravel for one, questioned the result. (On the other hand, Francis Poulenc supposedly said of Mavra, “Finally, a work of Stravinsky that is fit for my daughter’s ears.”)

The result is indeed quaint and quirky. Parasha’s opening aria, for instance, has the spirit of a Russian folk tune, underpinned by an “oom-pah, oom-pah” accompaniment in the brass. At other times, qualities of opera buffa are unmistakable; Parasha’s vocal line in the first duet with Vasili, for example, is contrasted with the earthier, and more Russian-inspired melody sung by the young hussar suitor. Other such examples occur, such as the later love duet, now between the “cook” Vasili/Mavra and Parasha. Perhaps it is these kinds of juxtapositions that upset Stravinsky’s critics, as the so-called “high” Italian art is contrasted with the “low” Russian peasant music. It would hardly be the first time Igor Stravinsky was denounced for such things, nor would it be the last. Indeed, he quite enjoyed musically mixing it up.

Perhaps one of the more innovative aspects of Mavra is the orchestra itself. It is scored for only a handful of strings (a string quintet), but includes an extra helping of woodwinds and brass (22 woodwinds and brass plus timpani). Perhaps unwittingly, Stravinsky had created a new chamber ensemble which would contribute to the undoing of the traditional opera pit orchestra.

      -- Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA, is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Publications Coordinator.

DETAILS:

Orchestration:
piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, string quintet, and soprano, 2 mezzo-sopranos, and tenor soloists. First performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: March 2001.