Yet again, the lively Commonwealth Lyric Theater is staging a rarely-performed Slavic work, this time, Cossack Beyond the Danube by Semyon Hulak-Artemovsky. Lidiya Yankovskaya will conduct a well-chosen orchestra, principal singers from great opera houses, and choristers and dancers from the local Russian/ Ukrainian community. The series of three shows begins on May 14th in Newton’s First Baptist Church. The music is bright and fun, and some of it can be heard in a wonderful silent film with accompaniment here. BMInt had some questions for Executive Director, Olga Lisovskaya.
BMInt: With the conflict going on between Russia and Ukraine, was producing this opera a choice dictated by the current political climate?
OL: Actually, the idea to stage this delightful comedy was born before the conflict started. The year of 2013 was Verdi’s 200th anniversary. All musical establishments were producing Verdi’s operas and all-Verdi concerts. Our theater, being true to our mission statement to seek out rarely produced Slavic works, put on an Opera Gala in November, celebrating the 200th anniversaries of Verdi, Dargomyzhsky and Hulak-Artemovsky. When Hulak-Artemovsky’s music began playing, the audience erupted in applause, and when the selection was over, the audience gave us a standing ovation.
The review [here] came out, calling the Ukrainian composer’s music “the highlight of the evening” and stating “we want to hear the whole opera”. This planted an idea to include the opera in one of our future seasons. In December of 2013 the whole world was watching the events at Maidan, and the year of 2014 saw the shocking development of the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict. Commonwealth Lyric Theater decided the timing was right to produce the Ukrainian opera, to promote Ukrainian culture, to lift the Ukrainian spirit, to introduce to American audiences this Eastern European operatic gem and, at the same time, to use this production as a means to show that art does indeed transcend politics. Our creative team is international. We have Russians and Ukrainians working side by side, creating the labor of love, because we are truly passionate about the beauty of this music and we truly love what we do.
I remember the bright costumes and the lively acting in 2013. Tell me something about the current staging.
If one looks for productions of Cossack Beyond the Danube in archives, there is almost always the same “look” to the set: a backdrop with painted Danube river and the sky on it, Karas’s “khata” (house) standing on one side of the stage, and a horse cart, plus some variations on the theme. Our stage director/set designer team put themselves in front of a task: to produce a unique show, which would highlight the comedy; to give a fresh take on the traditional set; to be light and mobile (since we will be going on tour), and finally to look rich and vibrant, in order to depict the richness of the Ukrainian culture and costumes. The set designer, Nastya Grigorieva, listened carefully to our stage director’s, Alexander Prokhorov’s, concepts and ideas, and came up with a fantastic solution: an entire village made of woven items, such as baskets and screens. These items will contain many surprises, which I will not reveal to you at this time, to keep you in suspense. As to the costumes, the foundation is, of course, the bright traditional Ukrainian costumes: “vyshyvanky” (embroidered shirts), “sharovary” (wide Cossack pants), red boots with some unique twists, which will make the visual aspect of the show even more spectacular. There are also Turkish costumes in the opera. Both Ukrainian and Turkish costumes have added elements, in order to pull together the comic aspect, present in the story and the set.
And the orchestra?
Once again we are fortunate to have Lidiya Yankovskaya to be our Musical Director and Conductor. She is very well-versed in the Slavic repertoire, and is known in the opera world as a conductor, who is dedicated to bringing to life the sound and musical ideas that the composer initially intended, even if it means to steer away from the so-called “traditions”, which frequently neglect original writing. Lidiya is bringing with her some of the best Boston-based professional instrumentalists, who follow her in many different productions, and who formed a core of Commonwealth Lyric Theater’s orchestra since the beginning of our existence. As usually, it will be a group of 20 instrumentalists, who will sound rich and full, thanks to the skillful arrangement by Moshe Shulman (who did the arrangements for all our operas).
Most of us know nothing about the composer. Please fill us in.
Hulak-Artemovsky was an extraordinary man, with many talents: he possessed an exceptional baritone voice, could draw very well (especially miniatures), was a great actor and dramatist, had a career in healing through hypnosis, and even designed the waterworks that is still being used in St. Petersburg!
Hulak-Artemovsky was born in 1813, the same year as Verdi and Wagner, in Horodische, a town in the central Ukraine, to the family of a priest, from a long line of Cossacks. Being an obedient son, young Semyon traveled to Kiev to continue in his father’s footsteps studying at the Theological Seminary. Just then the famous Russian composer, Mikhail Glinka, was traveling to Ukraine, looking for vocal talent to sing the title role in his new opera Ruslan and Ludmila. He discovered Hulak-Artemovsky and was enthralled by the beauty of Semyon’s voice; Glinka became his patron, by inviting the talented 25-year-old to study voice in St. Petersburg. Semyon had a warm personality and quickly made many friends; among them – the famous Russian composer Dargomyzhsky and Ukrainian poet Taras Schevchenko. His friends believed that Semyon had an outstanding talent, and gathered money for the singer to study in Florence, Italy. Upon his return to St. Petersburg, Hulak-Artemovsky began a long career as a soloist at the Imperial Theater.
How did Cossack Beyond the Danube come about?
At the age of 50, Hulak-Artemovsky composed his most well-known work, the comic opera Запорожець за Дунаєм Zaporozhets za Dunayem (Zaporozhian beyond the Danube or Cossack Beyond the Danube). The opera became the First Ukrainian National Opera, which delights the audiences with its colorful characters, vibrant humor and with the beautiful melodies, infused with traditional Ukrainian songs. It premiered at the Imperial Opera House in the Russian language, with Hulak-Artemovsky singing the principal role of Karas. After the first few performances in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the opera was taken off the opera stage, due to harsh censure against Ukrainian works in Imperial Russia. Twenty years later, however, the opera was staged for the first time in Ukraine, and became a staple in Ukrainian opera houses.
Will this be the first time that Cossack Beyond the Danube has been staged in Boston?
This is the first professional production of the opera in Boston, yes. As has already become a tradition in our company, we are fortunate to engage some world-class opera singers:
Adam Klein, an American tenor (Metropolitan Opera), whose Ukrainian diction is impeccable; Mikhail Urusov, a Russian tenor (Bolshoi Theater), who has quite an extensive Ukrainian repertoire and beautiful pronunciation as well; Pawel Izdebski,a bass from Germany who has sung all the Wagnerian bass roles, some of them under the baton of Zubin Mehta; and Galina Ivannikova, an incredible Ukrainian mezzo-soprano from New York. We will even have a real Turkish Sultan in the person of Bülent Güneralp. Some of the roles are double-cast. I am thrilled to finally get a chance to perform with my own company. I will sing the role of Oksana on May 14th, while on May 15th we have a talented young soprano, Jean Furman, who is only 17 years old! Leading the creative team are the Artistic Director and Stage Director Alexander Prokhorov and Musical Director/Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya.
Is the “Lucky Ten” Young Talent Studio again part of your production, then?
Yes, we are indeed “lucky” to collaborate with several organizations and individuals this time: Yevshan Ukrainian Vocal Ensemble from Hartford, CT will join our own CLT chorus; Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble from New York, NY and the aforementioned “Lucky Ten” Young Talent Studio. This production is part of the Newton Arts Festival, which has been very helpful in promoting our event. The art of our poster was designed by a well-known Ukrainian-American artist, Anatoly Dverin. The Ukrainian community has been very supportive of our project as well, and there is a lot of interest in the opera outside of Massachusetts. We will be going on a tour to Hartford, CT and Albany, NY. Hopefully, this is only the beginning!
What is the setting of the story?
There is a historical setting, which was left out from the original libretto, in order to circumvent the Tsar’s censorship: in 1755, the Ukrainian Cossacks were overwhelmed by the Russian Army, during the reign of Catherine II, and were forced to cross the Danube River into the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). In the opera, the Cossacks are fighting for the Turks, which is the main reason they are living in Turkey. The Cossacks strive to return to their homeland, Ukraine. 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. This will be a very unique and fun production, suitable to all ages! I watched this opera as a child and hope to see many children at the performance! Our company is also organizing a few preliminary events, which will prepare the audience for the fullest opera experience: a Free Admission Concert/Lecture in collaboration with Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, will happen on May 8th at 7:30PM at the Music Department at Harvard, Room 9. An Open Rehearsal, as part of ArtWeek Boston, will take place at the spectacular Museum of Modern Renaissance on May 9th, at 6 PM at 115 College Ave., Somerville, MA. Tickets $25 at the door or by reservation here.