Leonidas Gabriel Hertz
THE FINALE OF THE LOST OPERA
THE FALSE DMITRI
Libretto by Osip Mandelshtam
The notion that an anomaly can be a key to discovery is by now a commonplace. It is nevertheless true, and not just for science but for poetry. A famous anomaly in Osip Mandelshtam’s poem “На Розвальнях Уложенных Соломой” turns out to be a key to the whole poem.
In the third line of the second stanza, the switch from the third person to the first person, По улицам меня везут без шапки, has puzzled critics and has led to much confusion, intellectual contortion, and farfetched interpretation. Even such a sympathetic and insightful critic as Clarence Brown has written of this poem, “For anyone seeking a prose sense, a scenario, it is in my estimation almost incoherent.”
Let us assume that the poem is not a jumble, but a consistent, harmonious whole. Then the question becomes: What would be the nature of the context of that anomalous line such that it would fit in? Answer: If all the other lines were direct speech, too, i.e., if the entire poem were a libretto, an ensemble of speakers or singers, an opera. In fact, seen from this point of view, the poem is remarkably successful: perfectly coherent, evenly paced, smoothly developed, and beautifully modulated. The mix of voices is orchestrated with solos, duets, a quartet, and massed voices unfolding a tale of rising tension that culminates in the last line’s auto-da-fé. The poem is revealed to be the stirring finale of a lost or hitherto unknown opera, The False Dmitri.
For Four Singers and Chorus:
• The Pretender to the Throne, also known as the False Dmitri
• The Sleigh Driver
• A Guard
• A Priest
• Chorus – Men and Women Peasants, Town Rabble
Russian Libretto with English Surtitles
На розвальнях, уложенных соломой,
On a sleigh lined with straw,
Sleigh Driver and Guard:
Едва прикрытые рогожей роковой,
Barely covered by burlap that’s easy to burn,
От Воробьёвых гор до церковки знакомой
From urban hills to a little church I know,
Pretender, Driver, Guard, and Priest:
Мы ехали огромною Москвой.
We’ve crossed the huge city of Moscow.
Guard: (looking around him)
А в Угличе играют дети в бабки,
Here the kids are playing marbles,
Driver: (not taking his eyes off the horse
and the path ahead)
И пахнет хлеб, оставленный в печи.
And the street smells of bread left in the ovens.
По улицам меня везут без шапки,
They’re carting me around, and I don’t even have
a warm hat;
И теплятся в часовне три свечи.
Three candles glimmer in the chapel.
Pretender: (insisting on his destiny)
Не три свечи горели, а три встречи —
Not three candles, three meetings.
Priest: (the authority on Church history)
Одну из них сам Бог благословил,
Четвёртой не бывать,…
God sanctioned one of them;
There won’t be a fourth…
Driver: (knowing his distances)
…а Рим далече, —
…Besides, Rome is far away,
И никогда он Рима не любил.
And he never liked Rome.
Ныряли сани в черные ухабы,
The sleigh dives into muddy ruts.
Guard and Chorus:
И возвращался с гульбища народ,
A crowd’s returning from a rowdy street fair.
Guard and Priest:
Худые мужики и злые бабы
Lean hungry men and malicious women
Guard and Chorus:
Переминались у ворот.
Gather impatiently at the gates.
Driver and Chorus:
Сырая даль от птичьих стай чернела,
The vista is black with clouds of birds,
И связанные руки затекли;
My hands are tied up and have gone numb.
They’re bringing in the Pretender….
…немеет страшно тело —
…My whole body is numb.
И рыжую солому подожгли.
They’ve already lit the straw on fire.
This view of the poem as a libretto is entirely consistent with Mandelshtam’s other opera poems that fuse the stage and the street. Who are the performers and who the spectators?
• In “Летают валькирии” the separation between operatic make-believe and reality is blurred in the figures of coachmen dancing around bonfires (Извозчики пляшут вокруг костров) and in the figures of footmen lined up waiting on the grand staircase like supernumeraries (С тяжелыми шубами гайдуки/ На мраморных лестниках ждут господ.) The word that Mandelshtam uses here for footmen, гайдуки, “haiduks” itself suggests actors or impersonators. Taken from the word for Balkan rebels against Turkish domination, in 1913 when the poem was written it meant carriage attendants in the houses of wealthy landowners. Usually the haiduk footman was tall and dressed as a Hungarian, Kazakh, or Circassian soldier of the 18th-19th Russian Empire, like the fancy-dress soldier of Western operatic tradition.
• In “Петербургские строфы” (5th stanza) the peasants on the street are doubles for peasants on stage (Лишь оперные бродят мужики).
• In “Чуть мерцает призрачная сцена,” the carriages wait outside in a blast of warm air redolent of the opera house (театральный легкий жар).
• In the last line of “Летают валькирии” the opera, the street reality, and the poem itself all end together (Разъезд. Конец.)
It should come as no surprise that Mandelshtam wrote a libretto. Like the historical incidents at the core of Western operas, Russia’s False Dmitris of the 16th and 17th centuries figured in Russian literature and music to which Mandelshtam was deeply tied, notably Pushkin’s blank-verse drama and Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Perhaps most important of all, Mandelshtam tells us explicitly in “Чуть мерцает” that the Russian language is itself musical, allied to the Western tradition, and, to him, even sweeter than Italian:
Слаще пенья итальянской речи
Для меня родной язык,
Ибо в нем таинственно лепечет
Чужеземных арф родник.
As he says in “В разноголосице девического хора,” one is dealing here with an inherent combination, an inner nature that is simultaneously both Italian and Russian, итальянскою и русскою душой.