Russian Opera and The Russian Opera in Britain (1881-8)
Through a study of contemporary reactions to the first performances of Russian operas in Britain, comparing Rubinstein’s The Demon (1881) and Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1887) at Covent Garden with a visiting Russian company’s staging of the same two operas in 1888, this paper will explore the Victorian projection of Russia as a ‘learner’ in western European culture, preventing its acceptance into the operatic canon. At a time when Britain was almost completely unfamiliar with Russian opera, the German-Italian dichotomy became definitive in their assessment: any hints of Wagnerism were not forward-looking, but imprudent, while Italianate forms were accepted and praised, despite the consensus that Italian opera was waning. Further, the widespread fixation in reviews on couleur locale, whether negative or positive, quickly relegated Russian opera to a third category: National opera.
Thus, though Russian opera could take its place on the Western stage, it could only do so in unthreatening forms, or as novelty. Likewise, while Russia increasingly asserted itself as a world power, it was continually presented in the West as an imitator of European systems, a useful ally, as long as it remained a step behind. At a time when tensions over British and Russian expansionist policies in Asia were high, this image became increasingly pertinent. However, reactions across the period and the country were diverse. Though the performances by the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden were unsuccessful and the Russian Opera Company’s performances in London were heavily criticised, the Russian company achieved high praise in the provinces. This reveals the strong effect being performed in the capital, where awareness of political tensions was more acute and where there was a desire to compete with other European opera houses, had on the operas’ reception. It would not be for another twenty years, when it outlandishly pronounced its Otherness under Diaghilev rather than seeking acceptance on equal terms, that Russian opera would attain substantial interest in Britain.
Paper given at the Fifth Fitzwilliam Colloquium in Russian Studies "British Perception and Reception of Russian Culture, 18th-20th Centuries", Cambridge, 2012. Full text published in A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture, ed. By Anthony Cross. Open Book Publisher, 2012.