Glinka: A Life for the Tsar (Ivan Susanin)

Disc number in the directory:
MEL CD 1001336

The idea of creating a really Russian opera came to Michael Glinka’s mind during his tour to Italy, Germany and Austria in 1830–1834. According to his friends’ recollections he started playing the tunes of the future vocal parts of the opera in 1832. Coming back to his motherland in spring of 1834 Glinka started immediately to compose the piece he had intended to write.

Originally the composer planned to create an opera after Zhukovsky’s story “Maria’s Grove” but this idea did not live long. Glinka wrote, “When I expressed my wish to compose a Russian opera, Zhukovsky sincerely approved of my intension and suggested the subject of Ivan Susanin. The scene in the forest was deeply engraved in my mind; I found much original, characteristic of Russians in it.”

Ivan Susanin was a peasant and lived in Kostroma. His heroic deed when he sacrificed his life for the sake his Motherland attracted attention of Glinka’s contemporaries. The first who composed the opera on this subject and staged it in 1815 was Katerino Albertovich Kavos. In 1823 there appeared Ryleev’s poem “Thought” that greatly influenced Ivan Susanin’s image. According to his words Zhukovsky’s idea fascinated Glinka so much that at once both the plan of the opera and many musical themes were born in his imagination.

Composing the opera coincided with one of the most important events in Glinka’s private life – he married the distant relative Maria Ivanova. The strong feeling spurred up to Glinka’s creative activity – he finished writing the opera in 1836.

The libretto was written by G. Rosen (1800–1860) a poet from amongst of courtiers of Nicholas I. The work with him gave much trouble to Glinka. He was not satisfied with the mediocre verse of the librettist that was filled with the spirit of loyalty. Despite the fact that he spared no effort Glinka failed to eliminate all the defects of the libretto. Moreover, according to Nicholas’ immediate instructions the new name “Life for the Tsar” was given to the opera. The return of the original title “Ivan Susanin” took place after the October Revolution thanks to Soviet poet S.Gorodetsky who remade the text of the opera.

“Ivan Susanin” is the first Russian classical opera that initiated the new distinctive trend in Russian operatic classics. Odoevsky wrote that Glinka managed “to ennoble folk melody up to tragedy.” The composer personified the best traits of the Russian national character in Susanin. The leading character became the prototype of the indestructible power of the Russian people.

The basis of the dramatic composition of the opera is the conflict of two groups – Russian and Polish that is expressed by the contrasting musical means. Along with this Glinka uses the principle of symphony development that finds its realization in running two folk tunes through the whole opera. The composer introduced traits of novelty in the vocal parts of the opera: In Ivan Susanin’s part he created a new type of arioso recitative. “Ivan Susanin” became some kind of a paradigm for the coming generations of Russian composers.

The first night of the opera took place in St.Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre on December 9, 1836. The opera was highly estimated by Pushkin, Odoevsky, Belinsky, and Gogol as well as by the considerable part of the democratic intelligentsia and progressive public.


Act I. The peasants of the village of Domnino are meeting the volunteers of the people’s corps. Ivan Susanin, His daughter Antonida and his foster son Vanya are among them. The people are determined to defend their Motherland. “The one who dares to conquer Rus’ will die.” Everyone goes away but Antonida. She is missing her fiancé Bogdan who left to fight the Polish. She knows in her heart of hearts that her dear friend is alive and hurries to her. The song of the oarsmen is heard far away, indeed – Bogdan Sobinin is hurrying home with his comrades-in – arms. He brings the great news: a Nizhniy Novgorod peasant Minin calls up volunteers to liberate Moscow occupied by the Polish and to defeat them once and for ever. However, Susanin is sad- the enemies are still playing the master in his native land. Antonida and Sobinin’s wish to get married is resolutely refused by him – it is not the time for wedding parties now. It is time to fight.

Act II. The magnificent ball at the court of the Polish king Sigismund. The transient success came to the heads of the Polish and they are arrogantly bragging of their plunder and loot from Rus’. The ladies are dreaming about famous Russian furs and precious stones. The hetman’s messenger appears at the height of the ball. He brings bad news: the Russians revolted against the enemies, the Polish army is laid siege in Moscow, and the hetman troops are fleeing. Dancing is stopped but in the thick of zeal the boastful knights threaten to seize Moscow and to capture Minin himself. The interrupted merrymaking renews.

Act III. Vanya, Susanin’s foster son, is making a spear singing a song how his foster father found him and gave him shelter. Susanin comes in and gives the news that Minin has come and encamped in the forest. Vanya confided his secret wish to his father he is longing to become a soldier as soon as possible and to go to defend his Motherland. Meanwhile Susanin’s family are preparing for the wedding party. The peasants come to wish Antonida well. They left, and Antonida, Susanin, Sobinin and Vanya speak about their happiness: at last the long-expected day has come. Sobinin leaves and the Polish burst into the hut. They threaten Susanin with death and demand of him to show them the way to Minin’s camp to Moscow. At first Susanin refuses point blank and proudly says, “I don’t fear, I am not afraid of death, I will die for the sacred Rus’!” However, he devises a cunning plan to take the enemies into the thick of the forest and leave them to die. He pretends that he is tempted with money and agrees to show the way to Minin’s camp. Susanin tells Vanya in whisper to run to call up people and warn Minin about the attack. The Polish take Ivan Susanin away. Antonida cries bitterly. At this time the peasant girls who are unsuspicious of anything of the kind come to sing praising wedding songs followed by Sobinin and other peasants. Antonida tells them about everything that has happened. The peasants headed by Sobinin rush immediately into chase of the enemies.

Act IVScene I. Vanya comes running to the monastery wall to inform Minin about the attack of the Polish. Competely exhausted he is knocking at the gate but everybody is sleeping. At last somebody hears Vanya knocking. An alarm is raised, the soldiers are getting armed and getting ready to set off.

Scene II. Further and further is taking Susanin the enemies into the thick if the forest. Impassable wind fall and snow drifts surround them. Susanin sees that the exhausted enemies start suspecting some wrong and he will inevitably be killed. He bravely looks his death in the face: “They have a feeling of what is happening! Death is at my heels but I do not fear it – my duty I have performed!” He is bidding farewell with Antonida, Bogdan, and Vanya in his mind. A blizzard starts. Susanin is dreaming of either Antonida’s pure image or the Polish. The enemies wake up. They start trying to find out their whereabouts. Susanin answers with dignity, “I have taken you to where you all will die of fierce blizzard! You will starve here!” The Polish are choked with helpless rage and kill Susanin.

EpilogueScene I. The gate at Red Square, the crowd of people dressed in their best clothes is passing by. The bells are ringing festively. All people are praising the Tsar, great Rus’, the Russian people, Moscow. Antonida, Sobinin and Vanya are present here. Answering the question of one of the soldiers, “Why are you so sad”, Vanya tells him about his father’s heroic deed and his death. The soldiers try to comfort him – “Susanin will live forever in people’s memory!”

Scene II. Red Square is crowded with people. Rus’ is powerfully being glorified. The soldiers address Susanin’s children with the words of consolation. Minin and Pozharsky appear. The people are greeting the glorious commanders.

Mark Ermler (1932–2002) was born in the family of the famous Soviet film director Fridrich Ermler. The future conductor studied in Leningrad Academy of Music directed by B. Khaikin and A. Rabinovich.

In 1957 he made his début in the Bolshoi Theatre in Mascagni’s opera “Village Honour”. Since 1956 up to 1989 he was the leading director of the Bolshoi Theatre and conducted more than 2000 operas. The first night of “The Real man’s Story” was performed under his direction. Bringing back Tchaikovsky’s “Oprichnik” into the Bolshoi Theatre repertoire can be considered his merit.

Ermler became the head of Moscow Academy of Music orchestra after he quit the Bolshoi Theatre. Since 1998 Mark Ermler worked as the musical leader in the Bolshoi Theatre, in the last years of his life he was the conductor in the Bolshoi.

Apart from the performances with the Bolshoi group Ermler worked with the leading orchestras of the world. In 1985 he was appointed a guest conductor for the Royal Ballet in London. Ermler had the music of all Tchaikovsky’s ballets recorded with Covent Garden orchestra.

Ermler’s conductorship distinguishes itself by his skill to balance the sound of the orchestra groups and his attention to every tiny detail of the orchestra score. His musical interpretations resemble the best performance of other conductors of St.Petersburg school, E.Mravinsky and V.Fedoseev among them.

In May 2000 Ermler made the contract with Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. On April 14, 2002 during the rehearsal Maestro lost consciousness. Soon he died.

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