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February 2014
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As If Love Weren’t Complicated Enough

Ilya Repin painted this portrait of Glinka composing Ruslan in his robe

Ilya Repin painted this portrait of Glinka composing Ruslan in his robe

The Tuesday Night Opera, 8:00 PM

An evil dwarf brother; a kidnapped princess, a giant’s head that talks, a vengeful sorceress, unworthy suitors, and a lovesick bridegroom—those could almost be the plot points for The Ring of the Nibelung. In fact, this story predates Wagner; its source is Alexander Pushkin, an epic poem he published in 1820 called Ruslan and Ludmila.

Both Pushkin and Wagner craft their tales from a mixture of legend, magic, and local surroundings (Pushkin bases his action in Kiev; Wagner’s takes place in, on and around the Rhine river). A key ingredient to these tales is having a far-off, otherworldly realm to which mortals can journey. The essence of both Wagner and Pushkin is staging an obstacle course that separates the brave hero from the unworthy; a good woman is the prize to be won through acts of bravery.

Epic struggles for love must have been contagious for 19th century opera composers. Wagner began Das Rheingold in 1853. Before that, Mikhail Glinka began work on a setting of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila in 1837.

Glinka had approached the esteemed poet for permission, and for a libretto. Pushkin was eager to provide, but was shot dead in a duel before the project could be completed.

Glinka did manage to get his libretto, though it took several rounds. Typically three writers are credited with the libretto: Valerian Shirkov, Nestor Kukolnik, and N. A. Markevich, though there were others.

Prior to writing Ruslan, Glinka had premiered his opera, The Tale of Tsar Sultan. At the time, Russian opera had been trying to import the art form from Italy. With Glinka’s two hits, all that changed, setting off a golden age in Russian music. In 1878, Tchaikovsky completed an opera on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who ironically shoots his close friend in a duel at the end of the second act.

Hear Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila on the Tuesday Night Opera, 8:00 PM.

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