NEWTON – It’s a truism by now that the line between art and politics can be exceedingly thin. Last year, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko made headlines for a highly public donation to the opera house of Donetsk, and for posing with the flag of Novorossia, a separatist confederation in eastern Ukraine.
Yet when it comes to disentangling the musical legacies of this particular region, the task is hardly simple. Take the Ukrainian-born singer Semyon Hulak-Artemovsky (1813-1873). As a boy soprano, he was recruited from Kiev by Glinka, one of the fathers of Russian national opera. He trained both in Russia and in the great houses of Europe, and he sang professionally in St. Petersburg, both in fashionable Italian opera productions as well as in Russian ones. He was in fact one of the original creators of the role of Ruslan in Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila.”
But Hulak-Artemovsky was also a self-taught composer, and he wrote one work that has brought him immortality in the region of his birth. “Cossack Beyond the Danube” – which received its local professional premiere on Thursday night in Newton -- is a folk-flavored singspiel about Cossacks from the Ukrainian steppes living reluctantly under Ottoman rule. Ivan Karas, the Cossack of the title, accidentally meets the Sultan disguised as a commoner, and wins permission for all the Cossacks to return to their homeland.
Despite the Italianate style of much of the vocal writing, the piece has been celebrated as the first Ukrainian national opera. Doing so, however, required translating the composer’s own Russian-language libretto into Ukrainian, which was done during the Soviet era. These days, the work is still heard in Kiev, and the National Opera of Ukraine in fact lists a new production opening later this month.
The work’s genealogy would seem to argue against simplistic appropriation of any kind. Still, the members of the Newton-based Commonwealth Lyric Theater (Alexander Prokhorov, artistic director) made a touchingly earnest gesture simply by mounting the work this year with a cast that included both Ukrainian and Russian singers. Soprano Olga Lisovskaya explained from stage that their performance was dedicated to peace.
The production itself, a well-attended community event, was full of color and charm. The opera’s far-fetched plot demands no more (or less) suspension of disbelief than others in this genre, and “Cossack” abounds in earthy, tuneful music. On Thursday, a few stretches of spoken dialogue seemed to fall shy of their comic mark. But the dancing (from two Ukrainian dance ensembles) and singing (both solo and choral) was vivid, skillfully executed, and full of ardor.
Dmytro Pavlyuk sang the role of Ivan Karas and Galina Ivannikova was his long-suffering wife; Lisovskaya sang Oksana, their adopted daughter, and Adam Klein was Andriy, her partner. Bülent Güneralp was the benevolent Sultan. Voices of these principals came across forcefully in the acoustic of the First Baptist Church. The choral sound, too, was full and rich, and the orchestra crisply directed by Lidiya Yankovskaya.
If this work has had multiple layers of meaning in its native lands, it no doubt took on a few more when performed far from the Danube or Dnieper Rivers and closer to the Charles. Lisovskaya, who lives locally, spoke of growing up with this opera in Kiev, and made a special point of explaining this production’s departure from the traditional costuming that many in the audience may have been expecting based on performances that live in memory. Ultimately, the night felt like less of a political statement on the current conflict, and more like a communal bridge backward – in a way that only music can do -- to an earlier time and place.
‘Cossack Beyond the Danube’
Opera by Hulak-Artemovsky
Commonwealth Lyric Theater
At: First Baptist Church in Newton, Thursday (repeats Friday)