No scenes of fighting, human suffering or destruction, but rather a mixed cast of Russians and Ukrainians in full preparation for the grand premiere of the best-known Ukrainian comic opera, ‘Cossack beyond the Danube.’ This is the setting for the story of two culturally and historically intertwined peoples – a story of long-lasting friendship and cooperation between Russians and Ukrainians that is ignored by media and politicians alike.
Composer Semyon Hulak-Artemovsky was born in 1813 in Horodyshche, a city that in present days is Ukrainian territory, but back then was part of Imperial Russia. Although his family insisted he study at the Kiev Theological Seminary, the extraordinary musical talent of the young man did not go unnoticed for long. In 1838 he left for St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire, to receive vocal training from the famous composer Mikhail Glinka himself. After just one year, Glinka and his composer colleague Dargomyzhsky had developed such a firm belief in the young singer’s abilities and talent that between them they raised the funds for Hulak-Artemovsky to travel to Florence, Italy in order to perfect his singing technique. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1842, the gifted baritone became a soloist at the famous Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre where he remained for twenty-two years. This legendary theatre that staged many of the great 19th century Russian operas at that time coexisted with the Mariinsky Imperial Theatre, but was unfortunately demolished in 1886 for security reasons. However, its grand staircase and landing were preserved in the building of the St. Petersburg Conservatory which rose as a phoenix from the grand theatre’s ashes. That was, however, after the time of Hulak-Artemovsky. He had already left the theatre in 1864 to spend the last two years of his singing career at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
The Zaporizhian Cossack brotherhood
Besides being noted for his dramatic talent and his powerful, rich baritone voice, Hulak-Artemovsky wrote some art songs and three operas: The Ukrainian Wedding (1851), Saint John’s Eve (1852) and Cossack beyond the Danube (1863). The fact that all three of his operas are comic operas gives us an idea of the baritone’s fun-loving personality. Although the setting of his last opera can hardly be called funny. It was based on a story by the famous, and at that time, controversial Russian historian Nikolay (Mikola) Kostomarov, and tells the story of the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the historical stronghold of the Ukrainian Cossacks on the Dnieper River. In order to circumvent censorship, the composer somewhat ‘adjusted’ the historical circumstances. The story was no longer set in 1775, when Russian Empress Catherine II had ordered the destruction of the island fortress of the freedom-loving Cossacks of Ukraine as a punishment for fighting against the Russian Empire. With the help of his friend, journalist V. Sykevich, Hulak-Artemovsky wrote the libretto, setting the story in the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire and having the Cossacks fight for the Sultan. The efforts made by the Cossacks to adjust to their new home and the behavior of the eccentric, love-sick Turkish Sultan are the comic ingredients of this masterpiece.
Hulak-Artemovsky was very much involved in every aspect of the production of his opera. He not only composed the original piano score and the Russian libretto – the orchestral score was also completed under Hulak-Artemovsky’s guidance by Konstantin Lyadov in 1862. Konstantin Lyadov was the father of the great Anatoly Lyadov, who studied composition with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and became associated with ‘The Five’ (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) in the 1870’s.
The opera premiered in 1863 in St. Petersburg in Russian, with Hulak-Artemovsky in the role of Ivan Karas; but after its premiere the score and libretto evolved. A version in the Ukrainian language arose, and the role of Oksana, which was originally intended for mezzo soprano, developed into a soprano part, when the Ukrainian composer Oleksandr Horily added the much higher range aria “Prylin, prylin” (Come, come) to the original score.
Tour de force
While opera companies all over the world fight for their mere existence, a group of driven professional musicians founded the Commonwealth Lyric Theatre in 2012. Thriving almost entirely on donations and professional volunteers for costumes, chorus, dancers, etc., under the guidance of Olga Lisovskaya, executive director, and Alexander Prokhorov, artistic director, this company has managed not only to survive and attract high level soloists from the Bolshoi Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera, but has twice been awarded the first prize for best professional opera production by the American National Opera Association. Their work is a tribute to the beautiful tradition of passing on joy and love for artistic creation to the next generation, regardless of financial benefits – a tradition that is baked into the Russian way of life.
When the company programmed their Verdi 200th anniversary concert in 2013, executive director and Ukrainian born soprano Olga Lisovskaya encountered quite some resistance when she suggested the concert program could feature some work of Hulak-Artemovsky, also born in 1813. The objections were understandable of course – after all, what music can compare to Verdi? And yet, the unbelievable response of the public and critics upon hearing the opening phrases of the Ukrainian composer’s music planted ideas in the heads of the company members.
The exiled Cossack returns to the East Coast
Today, dreams are coming true, and the première of Cossack Beyond the Danube on May 14th is in full preparation. As the opera will be performed in the Ukrainian version, English supertitles are being developed especially for this production. Costumes are being sewn, singers are working on their pronunciation issues and stage director Alexander Prokhorov is working on a few interesting and hilarious unprecedented twists, which by now, have become the company’s trademark.
The mere existence of this joint Russian-Ukrainian production during these troubled times makes this production a truly unique project, deserving of all possible support. Performances start in Newton, Massachusetts, after which the production will travel to different locations. The production team consists of Lidiya Yankovskaya, conductor, and Alexander Prokhorov, artistic and stage direction. Executive Director and beautiful soprano Olga Lisovskaya (Ukraine), stars in the role of Oksana. Other cast members include Russian tenor Mikhail Urusov, soloist at the Bolshoi and Stanislavski theatres in Moscow and La Scala in Milan. American-Ukrainian mezzo Galina Ivannikova will perform the role of Odarka. The comic talents of Turkish-American bass-baritone Bülent Güneralp and Russian bass-baritone, Alexander Prokhorov, will definitely spice up the roles of Sultan and Imam.
In 1939 ‘Cossack Beyond the Danube’ was made into a film by the Austrian-Jewish set designer and movie director Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer, who claimed to have collaborated as set designer in legendary productions such as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Metropolis (1927), is today best remembered for his horror movie, The Black Cat, the number one Universal Pictures blockbuster and hit of 1934, starring Boris Karloff. Only five years later, Ulmer made his opera film, a black and white movie, called ‘Cossack in Exile.’ It was produced by Avramenko Film Co. (NY) and premiered in New York on January 28th, 1939. And now, after 76 years, the circle closes and the exiled Cossack returns to the American East Coast.
Cossack Beyond the Danube, by Commonwealth Lyric Theatre, on May 14 and 15 in Newton, Massachusetts, May 17th in Hartford, Connecticut and May 22nd in Albany NY.
For (very welcome) donations and tickets, please visit www.CommonwealthLyricTheater.com or call 1-800-595-4TIX. For general info, please call (857)284-9982…