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Laaaadno (The choir concurs)

April 18, 2009 at 8:48 am
By Travis Raines, Laura Roberts, Ben Tyler

As a preface, the title refers to the sound of twenty hearty male opera voices singing "Ladno" in unison, the informal word for "okay."

The Tretyakov

This past week, one of our assignments was to tour the “old” Tretyakov Gallery of Russian Art, the world’s largest collection of Russian work. While Petersburg’s Hermitage may have more name-recognition, the Tretyakov’s immense collection of work from Russian painters is enthusiastically described by my host (Lidya Vladimirovna) as “sovershenno unikal'nii” or “perfectly unique.”

The Tretyakov takes its name from Pavel Tretyakov, a Moscow merchant of the 19th century. A wealthy and active collector of Russian work throughout his life, Tretyakov bequeathed his large home and collection of art to the city in 1892. The subsequent story of the gallery is marked by generous gifts and difficult times (punctuated particularly by the shipment of the entire collection to Siberia by rail during the Second World War), but stands today as an extensive and indescribable gallery.

As for the author’s experience in the gallery - a high-school music teacher once quoted a famous critic to me: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I feel that a similar notion applies in trying to sum up the four hours spent in the Tretyakov. As dangerous as mentioning “favorites” may be when the subject is the art of historical masters, I feel that may be a more productive way to explain the experience there. Even these two can only hint at the range of work there, and I pick them as much for their impression on me as for the ability to talk about them without “dancing about architecture.”

First, “Black Sea” by Aivozovsky:

still no 

Aivozovsky’s seascapes are astonishing in person, perhaps even more breathtaking than looking at the source material. His palette of nothing but a series of blues, grays, and blacks, makes the vivid sense of the sea that emerges from the works all the more impressive.

“Boyarina Morozova” by Surikov:


This piece was particularly astonishing to me, since we studied it briefly in Russian 205 – I did not expect to be so shocked upon seeing it in person, but the immense scope of this work (its dimensions are best measured in yards, not feet) made it nearly unrecognizable in comparison to the 6 square inch photo in a handout.  The work depicts the arrest of Boyarina Morozova, one of the leaders of the Old Believer group that broke from the main Orthodox Church following a series of contested reforms. Morozova’s hand, raised with just two fingers, reflects one of those contested reforms – whether to use two fingers (the old way) or three (new reform) in making the sign of the cross on oneself.

Other highlights of the Tretyakov included a famous portrait of Pushkin which seemed to shine with inner radiance (or a specially placed spotlight), finding Gogol in “The Appearance of Christ to the People”, and recognizing the self-portrait of Bruillov as the image used on some English translations of Dostoevsky’s “Idiot.”

  The Opera

On Wednesday, a small group of us went to see Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi Theatre. It is currently being renovated and will eventually have excellent acoustics, but a temporary hall, which is smaller, yet equally impressive, is currently being used for performances. When we checked our coats and bags, we paid a small fee to receive opera glasses (lorgnette). I was annoyed at first, since I’m stingy, but they were worth it. The set was beautifully constructed and the costumes were brilliantly embroidered with sumptuous threads and glittering accents. I would not have been able to admire these details without the aid of the glasses. We sat on the far right, but since we were higher up, we had a much better view than those in the center. The orchestra was very loud, which made it difficult to hear the singers, but televisions with English translations on either side of the stage helped us considerably. I felt bad for the Russians in the audience with limited English skills.

Boris Godunov, considered to be Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, was written in 1868, but then a second version was published in 1872 with stronger female roles. It is based on Pushkin’s play about Boris Godunov, the heir to the Russian throne after the death of Ivan IV (the Terrible). In this story, Dmitri Ivanovich, Ivan’s son, was the heir, but Boris Godunov murdered him in order to take power. An old monk, Pimen, is aware of the crime and knows that God will have justice for the regicide. A young monk, Grigory, leaves for Lithuania, determined to become the Pretender and pose as Dmitri, reclaiming the Russian throne. Throughout the opera, guilt and black foreboding smother Godunov’s conscience and he fears for the future. He is never able to forget the young boy’s look of horror and suffering in death. Meanwhile, in Poland, the beautiful princess Marina is encouraged by a sly Jesuit priest to use her feminine wiles to encourage the Pretender to take the Russian throne. She is successful and Dmitri returns to Russia, bringing with him Catholicism and dark times. Boris Godunov dies and the Time of Troubles begins.

Boris Godunov

Scene from Sokurov's production of Boris Godunov

On a more personal level, I really enjoyed myself, but it was very long and past my bedtime. The costumes were wonderful and I loved the hats (see above). I spent a good twenty minutes trying to figure out whether the role of Fyodor, Boris’s son, was played by a woman or a boy. I was very surprised to learn that the show we saw was the first performance in which a boy played and sang the mezzo-soprano part of the tsarevich.

The Tango Concert

This last Saturday, the Moscow Symphonic Orchestra put on a tango concert at the city's International House of Music. Tickets were, unfortunately, sold out by the time I tried to find any--but luckily, a number of shifty-looking characters outside the hall were more than ready to sell their extra tickets.

The concert itself was more than worth the price of the ticket--the orchestra did a phenomenal job, and were accompanied by a special guest bandoneón player and Russia's champion tango pair, Natalya and Aleksandr Berezhnovi.

I admit that I was sadly unfamiliar with most of the Russian tangos played, but was delighted by full-orchestra arrangements of Por Una Cabeza, Libertango, and Milonga en Re. I did, however, recognize one Russian (though originally Polish) piece, the crowd's favorite, Utomlyonoe Sol'ntse.