Ruslan and Lyudmila is the second opera by Mikhail Glinka (1894-1857) who is reasonably recognized as a founder of the Russian classical music language. While in his first opera A Life for the Tsar, which was completed in 1836 and later renamed into Ivan Susanin, the composer turned to the well-known historic events, his next opera was based on Alexander Pushkin’s epic fairy tale.
By that time Glinka had been on friendly terms with Pushkin, «the Sun of Russian poetry», for ten years. Pushkin approved Glinka’s intention to compose an opera based on his poem Ruslan and Ludmila, though he planned to change a lot in the poem by himself. They discussed the opera plot in December 1836 or January 1837. However, Pushkin could not take part in the libretto because of his sudden death, and the composer had to write the score before the libretto was written. To gather up all music fragments, Glinka made resort to his friends – poets and amateurs – and wrote verses by himself for some episodes.
The opera was composed with short interruptions for five years from 1837 to 1842. Since some fragments of Pushkin’s poem were only included in the libretto, the opera plot was considerably different from the original. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila showed its amplitude and epic nature, which left no room for Pushkin’s ironic attitude to his heroes. The list of characters had been changed too, and the young captive Gorislava appeared instead of the bold warrior Rogday. The fairytale plot with exploits, transformations, the giant Talking Head, and other arcana was turned by the composer into an operatic myth or Slavic liturgy through which the theme of the victory of light over darkness run.
The premiere of Ruslan and Lyudmila was timed to the first performance of the composer’s previous masterpiece A Life for the Tsar. It was premiered at the same theater on the same day – the Bolshoi Theatre in Saint Petersburg on the 27th of November (9th of December). Initially, the opera was little appreciated and severely criticized – often disingenuously. Critics accused the composer of statics or lack of dynamics, not understanding the dramatic nature of the epic. The opera succeeded further, but was usually staged in an abridged form, partially because of censorial restrictions.
At the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, the full version of Ruslan and Lyudmila will be first sung in concert performance, and it will allow the audience to appreciate all the riches of the opera score.
The whole variety of images will be musically depicted in arias and ensembles including Lyudmila’s songful cavatina in Act 1, Ruslan’s full-hearted aria O field, field, who has strewn you with dead men’s bones, Farlaf’s pattering rondo The hour of my triumph is near in Act 2, Gorislava’s trusty cavatina in Act 3, and many others. The fervid color and enswathing charm features Glinka’s Oriental operatic music including Ratmir’s aria, Persian chorus and Turkish, Arabian and Lezghian dances. The evil sorcerer Chernomor is a wordless character but has his famous march in Act 4. Perhaps, the overture from the opera is the most often played piece, best known as a symbol of Russian classical music; its rushing mighty movement, which literally breaks through every restraint, underlies the operatic finale chorus finishing this faerie story.