Askold’s Grave became one of the most affectionately received operas in Russia of the first half of the century before last. The melodies of its valiant songs and elevated and melancholic arias have become passed into folklore. The audience unmistakably recognised in the music and characters of the opera, in the simple and witty speech of their dialogues, something of their own, something native. They were also fascinated by the image of the Unknown – a mysterious sinister stranger who appeared from nowhere, later dying in the waves of the Dnieper, a messenger from another world – akin to the black hunter Samiel from C. M. von Weber's Der Freischützor or Robert le diable from the eponymous opera by G. Meyerbeer. A decade after the premiere, the Moscow audience was introduced to the Unknown by a young Chaliapin and the aria "This is how our grandfathers and fathers lived under Askold" in his performance remained in their memory for generations.
Verstovsky jealously contested the glory of being the first Russian opera composer with Mikhail Glinka. And he was right in his own way: Glinka’s Life for the Tsar appeared on stage a year later than Askold’s Grave. Moreover, a younger colleague borrowed some plot details from his favourite brainchild.
Nowadays, Askold’s Grave is totally “lost” amongst many operas by famous younger contemporaries of Verstovsky. And yet, its undeniable fame among Russian operas of the Romantic period gives rise to curiosity and interest. How did Ancient Rus appear in the work of Verstovsky? What did theatregoers of his time admire in him? What will our contemporaries be able to hear in this opera? The new staging on the Chamber Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre will itself be the answer to these and other questions.
This and other questions we addressed to the creators.
Maria Fomicheva, director:
— Our performance is built on a combination of several different eras in history. They are a vision of the pagan Rus and of the 19th century, the era of Nicholas I, but such as they appear to us from the beginning of our century. We are not playing with true historicism, especially since there are no pagan melodies in Verstovsky’s music, there is no archaism and there cannot be. When you hear this music, it takes you not to ancientry, but to the 19th century. We are creating a combined image of bygone times and they exist in mutual interpenetration. The stage is decorated in the tones of white, blue and gold (a reference to the Russian Empire style!), while its floor is filled with natural pictures: a meadow, a river and a hill with a cross of Askold’s grave… And in this natural, relatively speaking, paganism there is something from the painting by Isaac Levitan Above Eternal Peace. It is the same story with costumes: we take such fabrics and make such cuts that could have been used in the time of Nicholas, but we add either a pagan ornament or details of ancient clothes to them.
There is nothing from the current century in our production. However, the actors are people of our time, and they fill the action with themselves, their reactions correspond to ours, creating closeness to our audience.
One of my first thoughts was: will the audience go to the opera Askold’s Grave on the 2nd of March 2023? Of course, not only did I want to carry out a cultural and musicological experiment, but to get a natural and warm emotional response to the performance. The audience do not have to prepare for what they will see. What you are talking about with them should be clear on its own. Therefore, it was important for me to make the text of Askold’s Grave timeless in the sphere of human relationships. Love, jealousy, meanness — these are the essential feelings of all times, whether it is pagan Rus, whether the 19th or the 21st centuries.
Ivan Velikanov, conductor:
— To tell the truth, even experts know little about this opera. It is one of those works, which almost everyone has heard of, but almost no one has heard. This is, in principle, typical for the music of the “golden age” of Russian culture — Pushkin’s time. It is important to inscribe the musical material of Askold’s Grave into the certain historical context. I do not believe that in some era in some country there is wonderful poetry and fine art, but no wonderful music. Here is an example from a different period, although no less typical: we all know Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Dürer, however, almost no one (apart from experts) would not be able to sing a single motif from any music of that time. That is how, through other types of art and more broadly — history, cultural marks — it is possible to provoke interest in forgotten or unknown works. It is fascinating to think what was played and sung on Columbus’s ship when it was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, isn’t it? We can wonder about Askold’s Grave: what kind of opera, the popularity of which overshadowed A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila in the audience’s perception, was that? What kind of work was in the centre of attention of the first readers of Eugene Onegin? I am convinced that the quality of the musical material of Askold’s Grave is such that it is deserving to sound today on a par with the well-known classical works for opera theatre.