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Iconic Female Characters from Russian Operas

On the 8th of March we celebrate the International Women's Day, so we decided to share just a few iconic female characters from Russian operas.

Tatyana and Olga from Tchaikovsky's “Eugene Onegin" (Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano / Contralto)

Tatyana and Onegin, Olga and Lensky are probably the most well-known Russian opera characters. The opera is based on the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin and in the opera Tchaikovsky stays very close to the original text. However, while the original novel focuses first of all on Onegin's life, the opera Tatyana's character is just as important.

Pavel Sokolov. “Onegin and Tatyana”

Tatyana's letter scene was the first scene of the opera composed by Tchaikovsky and the cornerstone of the whole opera. In contrast with selfish and manipulative Onegin, Tatyana represents an open, noble and honest person with a great sense of duty. She is not afraid to be vulnerable in front of him and she is strong enough to overcome her feelings and stay faithful to her husband.

Please listen to Tatyana's letter scene performed by Galina Vishnevskaya

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Tchaikovsky "Tatyana's Letter Scene" - FULL PACK

Tatyana's sister Olga, on the other hand, is a light-hearted 'child' who is not taking life very seriously and by that causes a lot of pain to Lensky who is deeply in love with her.

Please listen to Olga's aria performed by Polina Shamaeva

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Tchaikovsky "Olga's Scene and Aria" - FULL PACK

Ioanna from Tchaikovsky's "The Maid of Orleans" (Dramatic Soprano / Mezzo-Soprano)

The opera tells the story of the legendary French female warrior Joan of Arc (c. 1412 – 30 May 1431). It shows Joan's life from the day when she felt her calling to lead the French army to victory till the moment of her death.

Please listen to "Ioanna's Aria" from act 1 - her sad and moving farewell to her native fields and hills performed by Olga Borodina

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Tchaikovsky "Ioanna's Aria" - FULL PACK

In her second aria Ioanna tells to King Charles VII and his court about her life and the visions that guided her to set off for her mission to save her Motherland. Please listen to "Ioanna's Story" performed by Nina Rautio (the aria starts at 06 min 20 sec of the recording)

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Tchaikovsky "Ioanna's Story" - FULL PACK

Iolanta from Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" (Soprano)

"Iolanta" is Tchaikovsky's last opera, based on he Danish play "King René's Daughter" by Henrik Hertz. On the outside this seems to be a sweet story about the power of love. But at the same time it is deeply mystical and symbolic.

During the whole opera all the characters are occupied with protecting Iolanta from finding out the truth about her disability and trying to cure her and bring her to light. Iolanta, on the other hand, shows them that she does not need eyesight to be able to fully embrace and praise God, as "God's goodness is endless, it as no limits". She shows outstanding strength and courage facing the treatment that she needs to go through - not for herself, but to save the life of her loved one.

Please listen to Iolanta's arioso performed by Anna Netrebko in which Iolanta starts to vaguely suspect that there is something more to life that she does not know...

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Tchaikovsky "Iolanta's Arioso" - FULL PACK

The Old Countess from Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" (Mezzo-Soprano / Contralto)

The Countess appears in the opera first as an unpleasant elderly lady, complaining and unhappy about everything. They say, she knows a secret combination of cards that always wins. She only ever told this secret to two people in her entire life. But then a ghost appeared and warned her that the third person who will come to get the secret from her by force, will cause her death.

Benoît-Charles Mitoir. “Princess Golitsyna” – the prototype of this character in “Queen of Spades”

The time comes and the prediction plays out. Herman comes hoping to find out the winning combination, but she is too scared to answer him. He threatens her, but she dies without telling her secret.

Next the Old Countess comes to Herman as a ghost. She tells him the secret combination with the condition that he would marry Lisa to save Lisa's life and honour.

But Herman only cares about the cards now. He leaves for the gambling house, while poor Lisa throws herself into the river and dies. Because Herman did not keep his promise the cards to not work for him- instead of the Ace he gets the Queen of Spades. It seems to him that he recognizes the Old Countess's face on the card and he shoots himself in desperation.

Please watch the Countess's scene and Romance (partially written in French) performed by Elena Obraztsova

Snowmaiden from Rimsky-Korsakov's “The Snowmaiden" (Lyric Soprano)

"The Snowmaiden' is taking us back to the times when people believed that the world is full of magic creatures. A few of them - Father Frost and Beautiful Spring, Snowmaiden and the spirit of the forest Leshiy - play their roles in this opera. People of those times were also praying to a number of Gods, and the most important of them was the God of the Sun, Yarilo.

Viktor Vasnyetsov “Snowmaiden” (1899)

Snowmaiden is the daughter of Father Frost and the Beautiful Spring. She grew up mostly alone, deep in the forest. God Yarilo is jealous of her parents’ love affair and due to that the Sun is not warming up the country of Berendey and the people of this land have experienced fifteen extremely cold years.

In the very beginning of the opera Snowmaiden is asking her parents to let her go and live in the village with the humans whose songs she admires. She sings her famous aria "S podruzhkami po yagodu hodit'... “. Please listen to this aria performed by Bela Rudenko:

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here

Then, living among people she realizes that, unlike humans, she is not able to love. Her Mother, Spring, grants her this ability, but this makes Snowmaiden more vulnerable and she melts under the rays of Sun in the opera Finale.

Shemakha Queen from Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Golden Cockerel" (Coloratura Soprano)

Shemakha Queen is an Oriental witch queen who has the power to charm any man who looks upon her. She uses this powers to gain new lands without fighting in wars.

Bewitched by her beauty the two sons of Tzar Dodon kill each other. But Shemakha Queen easily makes Tzar Dodon forget about this loss and marry her. Soon after that the poor elderly Tzar is doomed to die too.

I. Bilibin. Illustration to “The Golden Cockerel"

Lisen to her sensual aria "Hymn To The Sun" performed by Galina Kovalyova:

Marfa from Rimsky-Korsakov's “Tzar's Bride" (Lyric Soprano)

Tzar Ivan IV The Terrible had many wives, historians believe that it could be 6 or 7, however for some of them we do not have enough reliable evidence. Being a tzar's bride at that time was nothing like Cinderella's dream coming true. All of them except for the very last wife either died or were send to monasteries and forced to become nuns.

The opera is based on the story of the third wife of Ivan IV - Marfa Sobakina, who died only 2 weeks after their wedding,

Marfa Sobakina. Forensic facial reconstruction by S.A.Nikitin.

It is believed that Marfa had been poisoned. Ivan IV punished and executed a lot of people in course of investigation of her death, including Marfa's family, although it is not really clear who actually poisoned her. In the opera this story is mixed up with a complicated love polygon. All the parties involved into these passionate and unfortunate relationships die at the end of the opera.

Please listen to Marfa's beautiful Madness scene performed by Bella Rudenko

Diction Tutorials for this song are available here Rimsky-Korsakov "Marfa's Madness Scene" - FULL PACK

Zemfira from Rachmaninoff's “Aleko" (Soprano)

“Aleko” is the first of Rachmaninoff’s operas, composed as his diploma project on his graduation from Moscow Conservatorium in 1892 (when he was 19 years old). It is regularly staged in Russia nowadays; Zemfira’s aria and Aleko’s Cavatina are popular concert pieces as well.

Konstantin Makovsky. “Roma woman”

“Aleko” is a story of love and jealousy, and the price for infidelity is death. Zemfira, a young Roma woman, is married to Aleko, who is much older than she is. They used to be in love, but now Zemfira’s feeling is gone and she has found a young lover. In her aria Zemfira brings this news to her husband in a rather confronting manner:

“Old Husband, fearsome husband, You can cut me or burn me; I am firm and fear neither knife nor fire. I hate you and despise you; I’m in love with another man, I’m dying for this love… How I caressed him in the silence of the night, How we laughed at your grey hair then.”

And, of course, Aleko kills both Zemfira and her lover by the end of the opera.

Please listen to the "Scene By The Cradle" performed by Veronika Dzhioeva as Zemfira and Alexey Tikhomirov as Aleko:

We hope you enjoyed reading about these very different women and will love these stories and this music as much as we do! Who is your favourite female character from Russian operas?

Natalia Melnik



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