Mamontov's Private Opera: The Search for Modernism in the Russian Theater

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Mamontov's Private Opera: The Search for Modernism in the Russian Theater. By Olga Haldey. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. [xiv, 354 p. ISBN 9780253354686. $44.95.] Plates, figures, chronology, list of premieres, bibliography, index.

After the revocation of the crown's monopoly on theatrical enterprises, in Tsarist Russia in 1882, private opera companies mushroomed. Only one could actually compete with the crown (court) operas: the enterprise founded and owned by Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), a Muscovite merchant and heir to a large railway company. It existed from 1885 to 1888 and from 1894 to 1904; Mamontov dropped out after bankruptcy in 1900.

Olga Haldey's book is the published version of her doctoral dissertation, ("Savva Mamontov and the Moscow Private Opera: From Realism to Modernism on the Russian Operatic Stage" [Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2003]). Her revisionist portrayal of Mamontov and his company aims at debunking myths, following the lines of Richard Taruskin and Marina Frolova-Walker. Haldey emigrated from Russia at an earlier stage of her life than Frolova-Walker, whose writings reflect a continual and conscious struggle with her own Soviet education. Haldey takes a more relaxed, "outside" stance. Surveying the considerable body of existing literature on her subject (pp. 6-14), she concludes that even the best latter-day Soviet scholars, such as Abram Gozenpud, were too severely constrained by ideological demands to produce a valid assessment of Mamontov's achievement. The standard study of his opera company, Vera Rossikhina's Opernyi teatr S. I. Mamontova (Moscow: Muzyka, 1985) is actually an abridged, posthumously edited version of a dissertation from 1954.

Soviet historiography could not deny that Mamontov was the quintessential capitalist, but it was common to stress the national component in his outlook and to praise his attempts to make high art accessible to the masses. On the other hand, his formative years in Rome (p. 37) received little attention, and the consequences of his sojourn--his passion for the art of ancient Greece and Rome, his penchant for Italian opera, and his belief in l'art pour l'art--were routinely denied or played down (as was done in the case of Tchaikovsky). Haldey offers detailed insight into Mamontov's complicated, sometimes contradictory aesthetics and sets the record straight. If his opera emerged as a nationalist hotbed--acclaimed as such by writers in the tradition of Vladimir Stasov, both in the Soviet Union and in the English-speaking world--this was, according to Haldey, mostly the doing of the Muscovite critics and audience. In some (unholy?) alliance they ranted against the foreign dominance at the Bolshoi and demanded a sanctuary for Russian opera, which Mamontov granted them (chap. 7, "Politics, Repertory, and the Market").

Haldey's subtitle underscores her view of Mamontov as a harbinger of artistic progress. Dismissing the equation of "modernism" and "avant garde" (Mamontov despised the latter), she declares him and his opera the immediate forerunner to Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets russes--both with respect to aesthetics and to the formation of a creative collective, an "ensemble" (the term used in Mamontov's circle, p. 104) from which the productions--veritable Gesamtkunstwerke, but hardly indebted to Wagner--emerged. It is well publicized that Mamontov backed Diaghilev's journal Mir iskusstva, yet Diaghilev also took a lively interest in his productions. Mamontov's staging of Gluck's Orfeo (1897), a Moscow premiere, probably made a deep impression on Diaghilev (pp. 127-29): standing up against all trends then current in Russian art (nationalism, realism, modernism), it was a manifesto of art for art's sake and an endorsement of ideal beauty (pp. 49-53). Haldey comes up with an interesting discussion of two Russian caricatures of Diaghilev in which a mammoth--in Russian, mamont--figures prominently (p. …