From Russia With Love

Culture & Science
26 October 2011, 22:52

Yevhen Stankovych remains one of the most prolific contemporary classical music Ukrainian composers. Less than a year after the premiere of his ballet Volodar Borysfena (Ruler of Borysfen), composed jointly with Party of Regions MP Anatoliy Tolstoukhov, Stankovych’s new work, Silska opera (Opera Rustica), was presented in the National Philharmonic Society. Curiously, the production was again a work on which he collaborated with Tolstoukhov, who provided the financial support. The event was sponsored by the Ukraine-Russia Society which Tolstoukhov founded and now heads.

Leaving the formal aesthetics of Opera Rustica aside for a minute, the premiere has dual significance. First, Stankovych is rapidly becoming to the current Ukrainian government what Dmitri Shostakovich was to Stalin. It remains to be seen whether he will have all the hard experiences on this path as the Russian composer did or how far he will in fact go, but both cases are examples of a voluntary dialog between a talented artist and the government in which the balance of power is skewed by definition.

Experience shows that in this tandem the artist can score plenty of points “from the viewpoint of eternity,” but the symbiosis may hurt him in the short-term: while allowing themselves to be used, the “chiefs” are sure to take advantage of the artist. You can only take comfort in the fact that Stankevych has entered into this affair with the government as a more than mature artist, so there is hope that it is a question of using an available resource with the cynicism of a man of true genius rather than conscious kowtowing to the “new masters.”

There is an abundance of such examples even in recent history. Carl Orff tainted his reputation by collaborating with the Nazis and Ottorino Respighi did the same with the fascists. Valery Gergiev, a fine interpreter of Russian classical music, struck a close relationship with Vladimir Putin and opened new opportunities for himself and the Mariinsky Theater, while at the same time performing in such ideology-driven projects as a concert near the ruined South Ossetian Parliament in Tskhinvali. What bill the Ukrainian government will ask Stankevych to pay is a question that may have a foreseeable ending. Artists of his generation may suddenly find it convenient to revert to the old Soviet format of relationships with the powers that be.

The other aspect of the event’s significance is that Ukrainian music buffs were able to listen to a new work by a first-class Ukrainian composer only after its world premiere was held in Russia. The Ukraine-Russia Society is restoring the context in which Ukraine obtains its own cultural products only after they have been approved by the “center.” Ironically, this time around it was not even Moscow, but Russia’s oil capital, Tyumen. They say that Tyumen locals with Ukrainian background directly funded the composition of the opera. However, their new home eventually took priority over their historical motherland. It is hard to say whether we are reverting to the old imperial matrix or have never really left it.

From the viewpoint of its form, Opera Rustica is no opera at all. It only proves the traditional problem of having a quality plot, characteristic of this genre in Eastern European countries to the point that the plot may be missing as such. In fact, Opera Rustica is rather a vocal cycle or cantata for bass and soprano marked by Stankevych’s peculiar penchant to superimpose highly contrasting vocal parts. The structure of the work is a simple alternation of lyrical parts to Borys Oliynyk’s libretto.

Stankevych has succeeded in constructing such a convincing sound environment around the poet’s rhymed banalities – sometimes fiery as in the overture, at other times hypnotic as in Mamo, vechir dohoria – that they begin to seem what every banality is: the truth of life.

Contrary to expectations and in stark contrast to Oliynyk’s countryside mediations, there is nothing especially rustic, or folk, about the score. (With Händel-like imperturbability the composer utilized, among other things, his own old theme from the soundtrack to Roksoliana.) Instead, Stankevych lavishly scattered insertions in the verismo style. This would indeed have been more fitting for a rustic drama which his piece has never become. How much these insertions are in harmony with the libretto is a rhetorical question, unless they are ironic quotation marks which the composer, a fine connoisseur of parody, put around the poet’s exalted idiom.

Last but not least, this work shows that one transformation is now complete in Ukrainian music – it has finally conquered the city. You will not feel the need to call a certain work “rustic” if it does not have to be distinguished from “urban,” which is typically taken as the norm. This is, indeed, the best evidence that the failure of the populist project in which rustic was equal to Ukrainian in general. In it, there could be no Opera Rustica, because all operas were by definition “rustic.”

So Stankevych has composed his rustic “opera.” Will he now tackle an urban piece, with no telling quotes? Classical music buffs from the Party of Regions and Ukrainian Russians will likely give him a helping hand in this undertaking.

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