In 1925, when Soviet composer Iurii Shaporin began writing his first opera, Polina Gebl’, about the Decembrist Ivan Annenkov and the French emigrée shopgirl who followed him into exile, he had no idea how tumultuous its journey would be. It took twenty-eight years and countless revisions for the opera to gain official approval. When it finally premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1953, with the title The Decembrists, the love story had been backgrounded and the historical plot line vastly expanded; scenes, characters, and arias had been added, dropped, or altered; and Polina herself had been written out entirely.
The negotiated process by which Polina became The Decembrists reveals much about the evolving relationship between music and power in the Soviet Union, especially in the high-stakes realm of Socialist Realist opera, in which a suitable exemplar had yet to be produced. Amidst the pressures of the late-Stalinist state’s assault on the creative intelligentsia, and in the wake of major opera scandals in the 1930s and 1940s, the Bolshoi Theater saw in Shaporin’s work an ideal candidate to fill this void: a historical opera with an unimpeachable subject, the Decembrist Revolution, understood as the foundation point of the revolutionary legacy to which the Bolsheviks laid claim. This article analyzes the intense negotiations among Shaporin, the Bolshoi and its consultants, and official censors to ensure The Decembrists’ historical accuracy, which they believed would guarantee its acceptance. Yet, as the article demonstrates, while Soviet musical authorities upheld “historical truth” as their standard, in the end the Socialist Realist ideal of “artistic truth” was far more important for The Decembrists’ success.
- © 2016 by The Regents of the University of California