courtesy of Naxos of America
When the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is associated with the opera repertoire, most people tend to think immediately of Eugene Onegin; and those with a bit more knowledge of the Tchaikovsky catalog might also bring The Queen of Spades to mind. Indeed, with about two decades of subscriptions to the San Francisco Opera (SFO) under my belt, I have encountered impressive accounts of both of these operas with a particularly imaginative approach to the latter. However, I can also credit SFO with introducing me to The Maid of Orleans, which was not the sort of opera topic I would have associated with Tchaikovsky. Most people would think that this might amount to an exhaustive account of the Tchaikovsky operas; but, when I was writing for Boston After Dark in my graduate student days, I remember covering a film of Iolanta.
One might think that I have lived through an exhaustive account of Tchaikovsky’s operas, but one would be mistaken. The Wikipedia List of compositions Web page for Tchaikovsky has eleven entries under the Operas heading. Furthermore, only one of those operas, Cherevichki (the slippers), is a revision of an earlier opera, Vakula the Smith. Fortunately, those curious about those operas that have received little (if any) attention by most opera companies can now have their curiosity satisfied through a 22-CD album released by Profil a little over a month ago.
Like most of these large Profil box sets, this is a compilation of archival material. In this case all of the recordings were made from live performances at the Bolshoi Theatre. However, because those performances took place between 1936 and 1963, there is considerable variation in the quality of the recordings themselves. Furthermore, several of the operas are represented only by fragments, one of which did not make it to the Wikipedia list, a “Chorus of Flowers and Insects” composed in 1870 for a Mandragora opera.
On the other hand the box also includes music that Tchaikovsky composed for two of William Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Those who associate the former only with the “overture-fantasy” that has become a concert favorite will probably take some delight in discovering that their favorite part of the piece (usually referred to as the “love theme”) shows up in this collection as an operatic duet for the two protagonists. Similarly, the overture-fantasy based on Hamlet (Opus 67a) turns out to be a revision on an overture that was part of a larger body of incidental music (Opus 67). Finally, the collection also includes incidental music for Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Snow Maiden.
There is an old joke about a book report by a sixth-grader that consisted of a single sentence:
This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.
My guess is that a lot of readers will feel that this Profil collection serves up more Tchaikovsky opera music than they would ever want to encounter. On the other hand, more intrepid listeners will find that there are delightful discoveries that pop up in unlikely places. I think I already knew that the music played at the beginning of Ken Russell’s film was the “Dance of the Tumblers” from The Snow Maiden. What I had not expected was that I would encounter an “initial draft” of the so-called “White Swan” pas de deux from the score for Swan Lake. It seems to have originated in an 1869 opera entitled Undina, where it was a duet for soprano and tenor. Those familiar with the ballet will know that those parts became the solos for violin and cello in the ballet score.
Rather than dwell on penguins, I would prefer to recall an advertisement for the Sunday edition of The New York Times from my younger days:
You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there.
When it comes to music for the stage, Tchaikovsky will probably always be known for his ballet scores. However, he was far more prolific when it came to opera; and there is much to discover in the opera scores that seem to be consistently ignored.