by Roman Sawycky

"Christmas Eve"


Nikolai Soloviev

Nikolai Soloviev (1846-1916), Russian composer, critic and teacher, composed the opera "Kuznets Vakula" (Vakula the Blacksmith) to Polonsky's libretto. Written in 1875, the work premiered May 11, 1880, in St. Petersburg.

"Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (fifth edition) has this to say: "Soloviev had entered the competition organized by the Grand Duchess Helena Pavlovna and the Imperial Russian Music Society for an opera set to Polonsky's libretto derived from Gogol's 'Christmas Eve Revels.' The prize was won by Tchaikovsky's 'Vakula the Smith,' that composer having taken the precaution to render his manuscript recognizable by the judges. Soloviev's music was considered by some superior to that of his formidable competitor. The opera was produced in 1880, when the composer received an ovation and a laurel crown, and it subsequently became a repertory work."

Mykola Lysenko

Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912), noted composer, pianist and music activist, founder of a national school in Ukrainian music, composed the comic-lyrical opera "Rizdviana Nich" (Christmas Night) to the libretto by Mykhailo Starytsky, with whom the composer collaborated in regard to libretto, i.e. adapting Gogol's story for the stage. The opera premiered February 8, 1883, in Kharkiv (this was the third version, composed 1877-1982; the first two versions are lost).

The libretto by Starytsky and the composer is in some ways different from the original literary picture of Gogol. The librettists have amplified somewhat the images of Ukrainian manners and customs, developed further the mass scenes of rituals, and introduced their own personages such as Odarka, Marusia and Hrytsko.

The characterization of Gogol's Patsiuk developed fundamental changes: he is a lazy glutton no longer, but a patriotic, romantic Zaporozhian Kozak, who feels acute sorrow due to the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich and worries about Ukraine's fate.

Lysenko and Starytsky discarded the fantastic from Gogol's images; the Devil and Solokha, the witch, both disappear. The magical flight of Vakula was replaced by a brief orchestral interlude which became Vakula's dream, leading to the happy ending. All this fits in the life of a village, not fantastic but rather realistic sketches of folk types. The part of Vakula the Blacksmith is vividly sketched as befits the hero.

Musicologist Lidia Arkhymovych felt that discarding the supernatural from Gogol's original and replacing this element with the graphic human qualities, robs the work of its magic, although Lysenko imbued his work with Ukrainian folk melodies including the colorful Christmas carols.

Lysenko's first wife, Olha, was an accomplished singer and is known as the best performer of the part of Oksana in her husband's "Christmas Night," but was also well known for her performances in other Lysenko operas.

Interesting testimony about Lysenko's superiority as author of stage works on Gogol's stories has been issued through the years by foreign scholars.

The May 1952 issue of the "Monthly Musical Record" presented an article "Gogol and Music" by the English music historian and authority on Russian music M. Montagu-Nathan. In this article numerous composers and their operas based on the works of Gogol are scrutinized. Montagu-Nathan argues that Lysenko's operas, particularly "Taras Bulba," reflected Gogol more faithfully than many a work of other composers, even Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Seroff.

"Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (fifth edition), in the entry "Lissenko," written again by Montagu-Nathan, gives the following opinion: "Referring to the characterization of Oxana, the heroine of 'Christmas Eve Revels,' Russian music historian Vsevolod Cheshikhin expresses the view that M. Lysenko's portrait is much nearer to Gogol's lively young village maiden than Tchaikovsky's presentation in his 'Cherevichki.'" It should be underscored again that this testimony was issued by a Russian scholar.

Lysenko's opera with new orchestration by Volodymyr Nakhabin (Ukrainian composer, b. 1910) was produced in Kiev, October 10, 1958. Unfortunately no recording of Lysenko's opera has ever appeared in Ukraine or anywhere else.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 30, 1990, No. 52, Vol. LVIII

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