How Not to Write an Opera

While Ruslan and Ludmila‘s influence on nineteenth-century music was exceeded only by Wagner’s Tristan and Beethoven’s Ninth, dramatically Glinka’s work is a mess. Michael Oliver wades in.

If you wanted to give a young composer advice about how not to write an opera, you couldn’t do much better than tell him how Mikhail Glinka went about putting Ruslan and Ludmila together. Firstly choose a subject so fantastic that it’s hard to imagine how it can be put on stage at all (one of its principal characters is a vast Head without a body attached).

Next, arrange for a drunken friend to dash off a draft synopsis, removing several characters from the original plot and adding a few more. Then write a lot of the music before a single word of the libretto has even been drafted. When you do find a librettist, send him what you’ve written and tell him to fit his words to it. Look through the bottom drawer of your desk for off-cuts from your last opera and works you’ve never got round to finishing: they’re bound to come in handy somewhere. Now take five years over writing the opera, because you’re busy and easily distracted and besides, you’ve just left your wife and your domestic life is in chaos. And above all don’t bother about the dramatic continuity of the piece, write numbers almost at random: you can worry about the plot later. In the light of all that you won’t be surprised that although Ruslan and Ludmila is quite popular in Russia it’s very rarely staged in the West. And there’s more: not only was the Head a singing character (portrayed by an off-stage chorus: beat that for impracticality), but also the more important figure of Chernomor the evil dwarf only appears in one of the five acts and never sings.

Ruslan’s greatest rival for the love of Ludmila is the virile Oriental prince Ratmir (he has an aria about how much he misses his harem) yet he’s sung by a female contralto. And the action is interrupted by leisurely narratives (‘Let me tell you the story of life’), by prophecies (‘You will win your heart’s desire, but only after many adventures’) and by ballet music. The most dramatic event in the plot, the defeat of Chernomor, takes place off-stage.

Yet it’s one of the most important operas ever written. Glinka’s biographer David Brown may sound like he’s exaggerating wildly when he says its influence on nineteenth-century music ‘was exceeded only by that of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde‘, but he’s dead right. From Ruslan‘s premiere in 1842 into the twentieth century few Russian theatrical scores weren’t deeply affected by it.

For Ruslan and Ludmila Glinka invented a harmonic language (‘normal’ major and minor keys for human characters, exotic chromaticism for the supernatural) which was immediately taken up by almost every Russian composer from Balakirev to Stravinsky. His use of Eastern colour and genuine folk melodies from the Caucasus, Turkey, Persia and even Finland was also much imitated. That great orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakov freely acknowledged how much of his skill he owed to studying the brilliant colourful scoring of Ruslan.

In short, a huge amount of what makes Russian music sound Russian was invented by Glinka in this opera. So how is it possible that a man capable of so much dazzling inventiveness within a single work should at the same time have so hopelessly botched its dramatic element? As David Brown also says, and many agree, Ruslan ‘is so dramatically flawed that there is no hope that it will ever become a repertory piece outside Russia.’

Bearded ladies and headless dwarfs
It couldn’t be, could it, that Glinka was just as original dramatically as he was in matters of harmony, exoticism and scoring? For an opera that seems to have been composed in fits and starts and then stuck together any old how, it has a curiously effective symmetrical structure. It begins at a wedding ceremony, and that ceremony is resumed at the end of the last act. Everything between is unrealistic, with strange contradictions of logic, at times alluring, at times disturbing. The detached Head is very like the vast helmet that hurtles from the sky, crushing the young Prince Conrad, in Horace Walpole’s gothic spine-chiller The Castle of Otranto: a surreal image, or one from a dream or a fairy-tale. So is Chernomor, the dwarf whose magic power lies in his enormous beard. His strangeness would be very much reduced if Glinka had given him a voice. Ratmir’s mysterious exotic origins are intensified by the fact that he is quite literally a bearded lady.

How Ruslan influenced other operas
The sense of dream-like unreality is increased by another of Glinka’s musical innovations, his way of repeating a melody almost unchanged but varying its background constantly and kaleidoscopically: the music seems to move forward at the same time as standing still. Could it even be that the tenuous dramatic links between the five acts are also deliberate? If you omitted Act 3, for example, no one who didn’t know the opera would notice any awkward dramatic gap and yet once you have heard it you know the opera would be incomplete without it. This apparently casual ordering of scenes was hugely influential. This frieze-like structure of operas like Prince Igor and Boris Godunov is another debt owed to Ruslan. Tchaikovsky less obviously influenced, was the most generous in his tribute: Ruslan and Ludmila, he said, is ‘the emperor of operas’.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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