In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

DR. VON LYRIC: It Just Keeps Rolling Along

Mar 9, 2015 11:32:00 AM
By BLO Staff

BLO's production of Janáček's passionate and compelling opera Kátya Kabanová  is preparing to open; the first night is March 13. I strongly recommend this as a quite rare (certainly in Boston) opportunity to see this masterpiece of 20th-century opera and an unforgettable emotional experience.
The Volga River
"Волга у Жигулей осенью" by Eternal Sledopyt.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Common

As I was reacquainting myself with the piece by listening to the unrivaled Söderström/Mackerras recording, I thought about the ever-present force in the opera of the river Volga. The first scene is set "in a park above the steep Volga bank," and the very first words are a discussion of the great river: "Marvelous sight, fantastic sight... the beauty of it makes your very soul rejoice." The very last sound of the opera is a wordless chorus representing the river itself, while Kátya finds both salvation and oblivion as she throws herself into its depth.

That led me, inevitably, to a consideration of that river's most famous evocation in "The Song of the Volga Boatmen." It is a very familiar piece, a traditional folk song first collected and published by the composer Mily Balakirev in 1866 and made famous by Feodor Chaliapin. Here are some examples of various interpretations of this song of "unremitting toil...devotion to duty...portentous doom...despair."

First, the iconic interpretation by the Red Army Chorus:

A less well-known version by Nelson Eddy:

A slight change of pace:

Another (oddly ominous) version:

Another unusual version:

"Twist," anyone?

Another quite captivating dance version. This, by Glenn Miller, was a huge hit in 1941:

A famous rendition by Paul Robeson, illustrated in this video by the most famous artistic evocation of the brutal life of the boatmen, painted in 1870 by Ilya Repin. He sings it, in English and Russian, with his usual eloquence and deep passion:

Of course, any mention of Robeson conjures up "Old Man River," which seems to echo the "Volga Boat Song" in many ways: its apparent musical "monotony;" its despairing eloquence; its calling up of man's eternal work and suffering, in the face of nature's calm indifference. "Yo, heave ho... once more, once more... still once more."

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