Pushkin – Grange Park Opera

Photo credits: Richard Lewisohn

Grange Park Opera with the Novaya Opera hosted the world premiere staging of Pushkin, an opera by his direct descendant Marita Phillips with music by Konstantin Boyarsky.

Before I get on to the story and everything else, I want to talk about the music. Modern opera always slightly scares me as many are very experimental, a few hundred instruments and no melody. Boyarsky, thankfully, hasn’t done the same for Pushkin. From the very opening notes of the overture I was blown away, it was absolutely phenomenal, Wagner-esque, strong, Russia, loud, forceful  and brilliant. If there was a CD of it I would have bought it by now and be listening to it on repeat.

The story is, for me, what lets this opera down. It is meant to be about Pushkin, returning from exile at the new Tsar’s command to help make the Tsar and his vision of Russia more enticing to the proletariat. It spreads over 10 years and we get bits here and there featuring the Tsar, Pushkin, Natalya (the woman he marries) and her sisters, along with others that grow in significance as the opera progresses. The main problem is it covers too much time and is very sporadic and jumpy, and too little time is spent on any character to really develop a liking, interest or caring for them.

The Tsar was to me the most interesting character, but again he wasn’t really in it much and his character isn’t given much. I was very impressed by Artyom Garnov who played him, he didn’t have much to work with but his voice was fantastic and he could act as well, you could see the different emotions, feel them, for me, he was the standout of the night, both as a singer and performer and the character.

Pushkin I had a problem with. The character is just not likeable, he’s homophobic, jealous and weak. There is a huge disparity between the Pushkin as presented throughout the opera and the final scene, where the Tsar is told that he will be remembered only as the Tsar who lived at the time of Pushkin, and describing all the amazing things that Pushkin said and did- none of which are actually in the opera.

The opera is performed in English, though there are bits throughout which I believe are Pushkin quotes, which are in Russian. These Russian interludes do jar a bit as they seem to come during the action, not at the end of something. It is a shame that the entire opera wasn’t in Russian, I don’t know if it was originally written in Russian and translated, there were parts of it where the English didn’t quite match the music.

Pushkin has by far the best music in a modern opera that I’ve heard, it’s phenomenal and well worth a visit just for that, it’s just amazing, there’s not enough epithets to rave about it. The location at Grange Park Opera and the simple but effective scenery worked wonderfully too, it was just the story and it’s characters which very disparate from what the aim seems to be and just don’t work. There is too much going on, it needs to focus on a particular time and a couple of characters, this is too ambitious, which is never a bad thing, but with a very unlikable lead character it’s tough to really get invested.

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