Vladimir Odoyevsky called the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila a magnificent flower that had grown in Russian musical soil. Glinka’s score is laden with musical treats just like the tables at the princely feast in Act I. the composer’s imagination, given flight by the genius of Pushkin, came up with one superb melody after another, it created hitherto unknown chords and it suggested the original decisions as to the orchestration. Fully compensating for the losses that inevitably accompanied the literary masterpiece’s transformation into an opera libretto, Glinka produced an epic and magical fairytale opera about the fearless Ruslan and his faithful bride Lyudmila, about trials and temptations and about the battle between Light and Darkness. the opera’s structure is absolutely monumental: in the outer acts there are the immense crowd scenes of Kiev, while between them is a musical “novel-and-journey”, a series of adventures of the three claimants to the hand of the Prince’s daughter: a mighty Russian bogatyr, a dreamy Khazar prince and a boastful Varangian knight. Glinka wrote all of the protagonists with unusual clarity, as he did the destinations to which their laborious paths led them, be these the cave of the magician Finn, a battlefield strewn with bones, the palace of the perfidious Naina or Chernomor’s enchanted gardens. Glinka’s flower was to leave numerous seeds in its wake after blossoming – musical innovations and ideas from which the greatest works in the Russian composition school were subsequently to grow.
Odoyevsky’s words about Ruslan and Lyudmila may also be taken to refer to this production of the opera at the Mariinsky Theatre. Belgian Thierry Bosquet worked for months in the theatre’s artistic workshops, and he personally sourced fabrics for the costumes from shops across the globe, trying, ninety years later, to recreate the mind-boggling colours and ornamentation of the legendary 1904 production. Back then, in what was the hundred-year anniversary of Glinka, the designs for Ruslan were supervised by Konstantin Korovin and Alexander Golovin. the luscious Russo-Byzantine art nouveau of their set designs amazes even today, both as a whole and in its details, examining which is a joy in and of itself. the opera’s scenes follow one after another, just like the pages of some gigantic illustrated book of fairytales. the dances deserve special mention; these recreate another anniversary production, that of 1917, when the Mariinsky Theatre was commemorating seventy-five years since the first performance of Ruslan and Lyudmila. That was staged using the familiar sets, though with new dances choreographed by Michel Fokine. Pushkin’s humour, having eluded the opera’s librettists, was restored in the dances and processions staged by Fokine, particularly in the culminating March of Chernomor.
In 2021 Ruslan was moved to the new stage of the Mariinsky Theatre; its lighting has been revived and the cast has been refreshed. This production is not merely a unique museum exhibit, not just a historic reconstruction, but also a living artistic organism with indefatigable energy and unfading beauty. Khristina Batyushina