Opera, Ballet, and Political Power

By Kendall, Elizabeth | Kritika, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Opera, Ballet, and Political Power


Kendall, Elizabeth, Kritika


Christina. Ezrahi, Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia. 336 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. ISBN-13 978-1852731588. $27.90.

Inna Naroditskaya, Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage. 416 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN-13 978-0195340587. $74.00.

On the surface, these two books appear so far apart in subject, tone, and analytic methods as to send a reviewer on a mission across a stylistic tightrope. Bewitching Russian Opera is about Russian operas glorious but often overlooked beginnings in an 18th century dominated by four female monarchs, and about how opera fared in the patriarchal backlash of the 19th century. Naroditskaya employs a feminist lens when analyzing the monarchs, the centuries, and especially the operas. She studies 18th-century operas as theatrical projections of these empresses (especially Catherine II, who was a prolific opera author and producer). She treats later operas as brilliant meditations on Russia's troubled past, in which the forgotten empresses pop up again, Naroditskaya argues, in the guise of cruel witches, rusalkas, and one ancient card sharp countess.

Swans of the Kremlin examines ballet, an art form seemingly separate from opera, in a time even more severed from its immediate past, the Soviet 20th century. Even though ballet's very nature would seem to invite a gender-based analysis (human bodies are its raw material), Ezrahi does not focus so much on gender matters or even on the dancing itself, as on the art's till now underexamined institutional history. To situate Soviet ballet in its time, she explores the inner workings of the USSR's two key ballet institutions, Leningrad's Mariinskii/Kirov Theater and Moscow's Bolshoi, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, with opening chapters about the 1920s and 1930s. Only in her final chapters does she attempt to foreground performance and the choreographic text.

Yet even if the two books seem far apart in subject, they share a historicist mission. Each wants to overturn certain casually persistent--and wrongheaded-myths about the Russian lyric arts in the context of political history. Naroditskaya challenges what she believes to be the gendered notion that the origins of Russian opera lie with Russian nationalism. After the death of Catherine II, she argues, the female monarchs' musical-theatrical contributions were suppressed in favor of an instant myth about Russian music springing fully formed in 1836 (the premiere of A Life for the Tsar) from the head of Mikhail Glinka. She calls this (quoting the historian Marina Ritzarev) the "Glinka-centric conceit." (1) Ezrahi, meanwhile, marshals key Soviet choreographic achievements of the supposedly choreography-less 1960s to disprove the "Cold War dictum" still widely believed in the West: that Soviet ballet was stuck in the past, or, in Ezrahi's words, was "belligerently conservative, producing superlative performers who were tragically, maybe even hopelessly, trapped in a system that precluded any further development of the choreographic imagination" (5). Choreographers and performers got some of their own back, Ezrahi argues, despite, or even because of, the ideological constraints of a rigid system.

But something else connects these books too: the shadow kinship of opera and ballet. Contemporary historians of both arts often forget that for much of their history the two arts were not as separate as is thought today but intertwined, sharing raw material, structures, and libretti. (2) Both books, moreover, repay reading by the "other" art's afficionados. Even if Ezrahi barely mentions opera, Swans of the Kremlin allows opera specialists to see how ballet's early struggle for a postrevolutionary identity paralleled opera's own (Anatolii Lunacharskii, the instigator of both struggles, plays an appropriately large role in the book). (3) Bewitching Russian Opera is even more rewarding for ballet-minded readers, since its first half treats that pre-Wagnerian time when ballet and opera were still married, and Naroditskaya's book overflows with intriguing details about opera's greater theatrical surround, which also included ballet. …

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