War and Peace Notes – Tolstoy’s Comments on Russian Opera

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Written for Slavic 90A: Introduction to Russian Civilization – Spring 2013. Read more of my previous notes on “War and Peace” here.

Distinct Russian opera did not form until the 1830s. Italian-Russian composer Cavos entered the art in 1807, but did not particularly tailor his work to Russians until his patriotic Ivan Susanin (later adapted by Glinka) in 1815. Afterwards, composers like Verstovsky, Alyabyev and Glinka came on the scene. However, all this occurred after the time frame of War and Peace (1805-1813). Opera was not written specifically for the Russian at Natasha’s viewing. So it is easy to understand Natasha’s dissatisfaction with opera, one that greatly contrasts her enjoyment of authentic Russian folk music at Uncle’s cabin.

In Book II Part 5, Tolstoy slightly mocks the Russians’ adoration of opera as a foreign art. Natasha initially dislikes the opera, preferring the her homeland’s folk music and balaika* (Part IV). At first, she considers the performance as  “so pretentiously false and unnatural that she felt ashamed for the actors” (602). Furthermore, she does not understand why her fellow audience members are so captivated about the scenes on stage. Instead, Natasha is distracted by Anatole, Helen and the other guests, noticing their outfits and appearances, rather than really paying attention to the opera itself.

However, by the end, Natasha ironically changes her mind to follow suit when the acclaimed actor Duport is applauded. In this fictional world, Duport was evidently a wealthy actor who received “sixty thousand rubles a year for this art” wrote Tolstoy (605). As the crowded called to this this famous man, Natasha “no long thought this as strange”, “looked about with pleasure, smiling joyfully” and conceded to Helen’s admiration of this actor (ibid.). This quick change of emotion is comical, sardonically displaying how elite Russians sometimes placed higher value to foreign art over their own native art.

*Wikipedia Entry on Balalaika: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balalaika)

Works Cited: Tolstoy, Leo, Joseph Frank, and Lena Lenček. War and Peace. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006.


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