2016 has been an eventful year for Sergei Prokofiev and The Mariinsky Theatre. It is “The Year of Prokofiev” in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. This loved and revered Russian artist has created both operas and ballet is considered one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century.
Prokofiev’s mother focused her life on music and brought him to St. Petersburg, home of the Mariinsky Theatre. He began lessons at the Conservatory and had written several by this point. Prokofiev was a child prodigy. It is said he grew bored quickly with his studies yet still surpassed the other students.
Even though Prokofiev left Russia following the Revolution in 1917 and didn’t go back for seventeen years, St. Petersburg and the Mariinsky Theatre are the birthplace of Prokofiev’s career and it is fitting he is celebrated in such an honorable way, with a year of festivals and events.
We would like to join them in their celebration by discussing four Prokofiev works.
1. The Gambler
Our first Prokofiev work is a four-act piece based on a story with the same title written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In 2014, the release of this opera on the Mariinsky label was awarded the International Classical Music Award. It was also short-listed in the British International Opera Awards, the Academy Awards of the opera world. Watch the recording of the incredible piece and performance here!
The Mariinsky theater has a special connection with this opera due to its involvement in its composition. They encouraged Prokofiev to compose The Gambler and promised they would hold the premiere. Working on it for a few years and they even had a stage director, yet after the February Revolution in Russia of 1917, production was put on hold.
It was then when Prokofiev left Russia and this work was not performed until 1929.
Alexei serves as a tutor to a General’s family and their ward Polina, who owes the Marquis a great debt. Alexei is in love with Polina and follows her instructions to sell her jewelry and use it for gambling to win her debt. Alexei loses the money. In the meantime, the General is in love with Blanche.
Alexei admits to his gambling losses but lies and says it was his money. He gets scolded for gambling when he earns such a meager living. The General is also hoping that his grandmother will soon die so he can bequeath her money and marry Blanche.
Polina is upset because she wants to pay the Marquis her debt. She also doubts the authenticity of Alexei’s love. Polina tests Alexei’s loyalty by insisting he flirt with a German Baroness they see in the park. He does what she wishes and the Baron and Baroness leave angry.
Next, we introduce you to a Prokofiev ballet that was first written in 1915 and then reworked in 1921. This ballet is also known as The Tale of the Buffoon or The Buffoon. The very first title of this ballet was The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons, which is even longer in Russian. Eventually, it was shortened to Chout, a French romantic derivative of the Russian word meaning “buffoon.”
The importance of this ballet is that it was the first completed work for ballet that Prokofiev composed for the ballet legend Sergei Diaghilev. This wasn’t their first time working together. Before Chout, Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev to write Ala and Lolli but wasn’t happy with the results and ultimately disregarded his submission.
Based on a mythical legend chronicled by Alexander Afanasyev and the first composer to suggest this idea to Diaghilev was Igor Stravinsky. Instead, Diaghilev took it to Prokofiev and, with the help of choreographer Léonide Massine, the three came up with the ballet Chout.
The plot revolves around seven buffoons who murder their wives because an eighth buffoon has told them he has murdered his wife. They are convinced when the eighth buffoon tells the seven that he could bring his wife back to life with a whip that has mystic powers. He vows that after they kill their wives he will use the whip to restore their lives.
Originally the score was written in 1915 but Diaghilev was not pleased. Improvements would take Prokofiev six years to complete and Chout would finally be premiered by the Ballets Russes on May 17, 1921, at the Théâtre Municipal de la Gaîté in Paris.
3. Le pas d’acier
This later ballet by Prokofiev was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. Prokofiev went to Diaghilev with a score titled Ursignol in the fall of 1925 but the final version was not completed for two more years.
The first draft was set in Soviet Russia yet they were emigrants from the Revolution and were not familiar with this newer Russia. This original scene included opportunists, sailors, and workers, there were sections set in a station, then a marketplace, and a plant. These were common characters and settings in the early days of the Soviet Union.
Critiques can be found regarding the 1927 production and they claim that the plot had been changed to add the Russian folk-lore that Prokofiev had intended to omit. The original production was choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russes and premiered on June 7th at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris.
Despite mixed reviews, this ballet was a great accomplishment for both Prokofiev and Diaghilev. After this Diaghilev never doubted Prokofiev again and called him “my second son.” It is said his “first” son was Stravinsky. Diaghilev died in 1929 and Prokofiev lost his main supplier of ballet commissions in Paris and Western Civilization.
In 1931 the ballet was given a new choreographic theme by Boris Gusan for the Bolshoi Theatre and this cast would go on to perform in the United States. The next staging of this Prokofiev ballet was by the Princeton University’s ballet in 2005
4. The Giant
This piece was written by Prokofiev in 1899 and is considered his first operatic work. Already a prodigy, at this point the young composer had several piano samples written. Prokofiev was first introduced to the opera when he traveled with his parents to Moscow. While there they experienced Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin and Faust by Charles Gounod.
When they returned, the young Prokofiev had an intense desire to create his own opera. He wrote the libretto, or text, and came up with three acts consisting of six scenes. His mother helped him transcribe his ideas and Prokofiev utilized a game he played with childhood friends Egorka and Stenya, whose names he used as well.
After completing the opera Prokofiev staged a performance at his uncle’s family home using family members including his aunt Tatiyana and some cousins. There is no record of this opera ever being performed afterward.
Prokofiev himself remembered that he was very nervous when he first staged this opera and sang incorrect parts. Still, the six members of that first audience cheered and Prokofiev’s uncle told him, “When your operas are performed on the Imperial stage, remember that your first opera was staged in my house.”
This staging is reenacted in The Prodigal Son, a TV documentary about Prokofiev.