Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila is not the first great Russian national opera -- that honor goes to his A Life for the Tsar -- but it is the definitive Russian opera. Shortly after the successful premiere of A Life for the Tsar in 1836, the director of the Imperial Theater suggested to Glinka Pushkin's mock-epic Ruslan and Lyudmila. But before the composer and poet could collaborate, the poet died in a duel, and although Glinka pushed ahead with the project, he did so without a librettist. As one of his friends noted, "The opera is almost finished and yet there is no text. A strange way of writing." The libretto was eventually written by Valerian Shirkov, but Glinka's dissatisfaction with it led him to bring in other writers and to even write some of it himself. Although Ruslan and Lyudmila was heavily cut and its final libretto roundly criticized, the premiere on November 27, 1842, was successful -- one critic called it splendid, grandiose, and fascinating -- and the work was given 31 times in its first season. But that number quickly diminished until the opera was withdrawn from the repertoire in 1848. Its first complete and uncut performance was given by Balakirev in Prague in 1867.
Glinka's opera is at once an epic and heroic quest opera and an intimate and lyrical opera, with both naturalistic and supernatural elements. Over the course of five acts, Ruslan's quest for the abducted Lyudmila takes him through music from all over: Russian music, Finnish music, Tartar music, Persian music, and, of course, Russian folk themes. All of these musics are wonderfully characterized, vividly rhythmic, and brilliantly orchestrated. To differentiate between the real world of Ruslan's Russia and the magical world of the villain Chernomor, Glinka uses earthy, tonal folk songs for the former and unearthly whole-tone harmonies for the latter. All of these disparate elements, however, are unified by Glinka's tremendous imagination and masterful compositional skills. Ruslan and Lyudmila influenced every subsequent Russian opera and Russian composer straight through to Shostakovich's The Nose 80 years later. by James Leonard