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Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Maid of Pskov'

In 1939, the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made a splash in Hollywood with the American release of his sweeping, historical epic Alexander Nevsky. Then he followed it up in the 40's with the even more sprawling, three-part drama, Ivan the Terrible.

To many movie buffs, these films surely seemed new and exotic, with their colorful, Russian settings and dark, psychological undertones. Opera fans, on the other hand, may have recognized the movies as part of a theatrical trend dating back to the previous century.

In the mid-1800's, a group of young composers got together in St. Petersburg. Now known as "The Mighty Handful," their goal was to establish a distinctly Russian school of composing, and Russian history was one of their most important tools.

When it comes to opera, the most famous product of their efforts is Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Other members of the group also pitched in — notably Alexander Borodin, with Prince Igor. And there was another, less familiar contribution from a composer not known for somber, historical dramas: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Though Rimsky-Korsakov is familiar to many music lovers for his brilliantly orchestrated concert music — including the symphonic poem Scheherezade — he also wrote a dozen or so operas. Most of them are showy concoctions based on fantastic stories from Russian folklore and legend. But his first opera, The Maid of Pskov, is something else altogether. It's a complex, psychological drama, steeped in history and driven by one of the same characters that later inspired Eisenstein, the 16th-century czar, Ivan IV.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera explores a specific event during Ivan's long reign. In 1570, the czar destroyed the rebellious city of Novgorod. But for some reason, he then spared its nearby, sister city, Pskov. In The Maid of Pskov, that decision is explained with a distinctly operatic spin: The fearsome conqueror Ivan took mercy on the city because it was home to his long lost daughter. The "maid" of Pskov, it turns out, is Ivan the Terrible's love child.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Maid of Pskov from the same venue where the opera had its 1873 world premiere, the historic Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It's a revival of a Mariinsky production first staged in 1952. The performance is led by one of today's foremost interpreters of Russian opera, conductor Valery Gergiev.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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