New book commemorates 100th anniversary of Lviv Opera
by Adrian Bryttan
Anyone who has ever attended a performance at the majestic Opera Theater in Lviv must surely have wondered how it came to be built and who were the stars who had performed there over the years. Now commemorating the 100th anniversary of its opening, a book titled "The Lviv Opera House" has been published in Ukrainian and English (Lviv, 2000). The author is Oksana Palamarchuk, and the photographer is Vasyl Pylypiuk. Lavishly illustrated, with a comprehensive history of the theater and its many performers, this 155-page hard-bound volume contains a wealth of detailed information.
Visitors often comment on the similarity of the facades of the Lviv and Paris operas. The Lviv Theater rests in a most picturesque setting in the heart of the city, at the head of a beautiful, tree-lined avenue, Prospekt Svobody (Vista of Freedom). Right next door is the Lviv Ukrainian Drama (Zankovetska) Theater and, as one approaches the opera, one can see the original ornate street lamps flanking the theater. Whereas many opera houses in Europe have been slowly encroached by taller buildings, the Lviv Opera retains its attractive focus. It is difficult to imagine that this area was once a swampy marshland and that the river Poltva had to be diverted before any construction could begin.
The opening chapter in this new book describes the 1895 competition for a new theater design. First prize was awarded to Lviv architect Zigmund Gorgolewski, who put forth some ingenious and daring solutions to the groundwork problems. This was the first time in Europe that solid concrete slabs were used for laying a foundation. Later, the striking interiors are all minutely described and accompanied by numerous photographs of the many murals and sculptures, the central chandelier, the fire curtain and the famous Hall of Mirrors.
But one of the most valuable aspects of this book is that it helps one understand why an opera house came to built in Lviv. The author explains the roots of the professional theater in Lviv, starting with the "vertepy" (a Ukrainian form of the puppet theater), the many international and local traveling companies and later, the "German" and "Polish" periods. For many years the Lviv Opera was one of the leading centers for cultural life in Eastern Europe. In the early 1900s the repertoire was very ambitious; the first performance in Eastern Europe of Wagner's complete "Ring" was in Lviv. The finest singers of their time appeared on the Lviv stage, including Mattia Battistini, Gemma Bellincioni, Oleksander Myshuha, Solomiya Krushelnytska, Modest Menzinsky, Adam Didur and later Clemens Andrienko, Ira Malaniuk, Ivan Kozlovsky, Borys Hmyria and Yuriy Mazurok.
In addition to the great vocalists, musicians who worked or performed extensively in Lviv included Brahms, Rubinstein, Wieniawski, Liszt and Mozart's youngest son. Franz Xavier Mozart founded the St. Caecilia Choral Society in Lviv and worked as pianist and conductor in Halychyna for three decades.
The final chapters conclude with extensive lists of contemporary singers, conductors, set designers, ballet performers and the many world premieres performed in Lviv. The creative environment included the dramatic arts; the author chronicles the work of Yosyp Hirniak (1895-1989) and Volodymyr Blavatsky (1900-1953), for example.
At times, however, the style of the text reads like a catalogue and the English translation leaves much to be desired. Often the indiscriminate long lists of facts and the author's florid style contribute to a lack of significant focus and create a bewildering effect. What is needed is more in-depth emphasis on the fewer, but truly noteworthy, artists. Moreover, a worthy project of this importance should warrant the correct spellings for foreign composers, performers and operas.
Still, it is exhilarating to read and discover so much about the cultural life and musical history of Lviv. We can be proud of so many outstanding musicians and performers; this is information that deserves to be widely publicized. This book is a significant source of material about the Lviv Opera Theater, its architect, the community and the artists who lit up its stage for over a century.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 13, 2001, No. 19, Vol. LXIX
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