Article by Robert Thicknesse

A frisson of horror went through Europe, and suddenly a new kind of terrorist – the Nihilist – was sexy.  Thank goodness, these wild-eyed messianic fanatics, the jihadists of their day, were confined to the wastes of barbarian Russia, where killing tsars was hardly news.  (As Talleyrand remarked, when yet another one had reportedly died of “apoplexy”: “Really, the Russians need to invent a new disease”.)  But Victorien Sardou, an established French playwright who would go on to write La Tosca, knew a good story when he saw one, and made the exciting Nihilists (who had previously confined themselves to bumping off police chiefs and the like) the peg on which to hang Fédora, which would be a star vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, who had already established a requirement for writhing death scenes (she also wore an odd hat in the production which, for want of any other, subsequently took the play’s name).  In 1898 Sardou’s play went on to provide Umberto Giordano with the text for his operatic follow-up to Andrea Chénier, performed at Opera Holland Park last summer.

But who were these new terrorists, these Nihilists, what peculiarly Russian programme did they pursue, and should Europe have been more worried than simply to turn them into the unseen villains of melodrama?

The group responsible for Alexander’s death was called Narodnaya Volya, The People’s Will, a dogged organisation that had already made seven unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the Tsar, including two on the very day he died.  The group’s name, which by 1881 even they might have recognised was not entirely appropriate, came from the glazed-eyed belief among the young intellectuals who were the revolutionary elite of mid-19th century Russia that the key to the country’s future lay in the impeccably socialist soul of the Russian peasant, as manifested in the ancient village commune.  The summer fields were full of earnest students living the peasant life and preaching revolution to uncomprehending herds of slack-jawed yokels.

It was, of course, hopeless.  The Russian peasant’s centuries-long history of slavery, brutality, alcoholism, fornication and bestiality had turned him not into a revolutionary firebrand but a staunch conservative, to put it mildly, to whom authority, whether of corrupt church, abusive landowner or semi-mythical Tsar (usually referred to as batyushka, or daddy) was a divinely-ordained, integral part of that unusual interim of suffering known as “life”.  In any case they were hardly likely to rise up against the Tsar who had in 1861 freed them from immemorial serfdom, even if their new freedom was somewhat contingent.

The students went home in despair.  Henceforth little attention would be paid by Russian revolutionaries to the lumpen, backward peasantry – the urban proletariat was a much more easily politicised target – and the rural masses would pay a steep price for their conservatism in deliberately-manufactured famines a couple of generations later.  Still, The People’s Will was as good a name as any, and the revolutionaries stuck with it.  Their purpose changed, however: enforcedly giving up on the idea of social revolution – revolution from below – they conceived instead the plan of engineering (or imposing) a political one.  Once that was accomplished, the social one would inexorably follow, and the recalcitrant peasantry would be dragged along with it whether they liked it or not.  All that remained, then, was to remove the entire machinery of the Russian state.

In 1862 a novel appeared which gave a new name to this philosophy: Nihilism.  Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is hardly a revolutionary book, and like most of the man’s somewhat elegiac novels was roundly pasted by both Left and Right for failing to take sides with sufficient clarity.  But in his chief character, Eugene Bazarov, the author created an archetype of the coming man: young, fearless, super-rational, he refuses to take anything on trust, even, to the horror of the minor rural aristocracy he hangs out with, the teachings of the church.  Instead Bazarov, a doctor, says he believes in “frogs”, the empirical, anything he can prove by scientific enquiry or physical dissection.  “The most useful thing one can do at the moment is to deny,” he tells the baffled old loves he is staying with.  As a natural extension of his beliefs – which spring after all from a proper indignation at the mediaeval horrors and injustices of Russia – he holds that all power structures should be destroyed.  And replaced by what? he is asked.  “That’s not my business.  First you have to clear the ground.”  This is the genuine voice of the Nihilist, and explains why Bazarov has been called “the first Bolshevik”.  In Turgenev’s book he might be an attractive character, but he spawned generations of petty-minded, fascistic martinets whose effect on history was more than baleful.

Being Russians, the new Nihilists took things to extremes, placing their faith in violence with a quasi-religious fervour.  It was ironic that Alexander II should have been their target: the only decent Tsar Russia had in the 19th century, he abolished serfdom and – they say – he had in his pocket the draft of a new liberalised constitution when he was blown up.  His son and successor Alexander III wasn’t going to make the same mistakes, and reinstituted the mechanisms of repression which his father had begun to loosen.  But maybe that was just what the terrorists wanted.

When Sardou wrote his play the whole thing must have seemed distant, exotic and glamorous; blood on the snow, jingle bells and mysterious women dressed in fur coats.  Maybe a few more alarm bells should have been ringing.  A few years later, in 1887, after an attempt to kill Alexander III, a young Narodnaya Volya terrorist, Alexander Ulyanov, was executed in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress where Loris’s brother meets his doom in Fédora (Soviet guides used to tearfully show you his cell).  His little brother Vladimir never forgave or forgot, and swore to avenge his brother’s death on the whole of Russia.  The first thing he did was to change his name to Lenin.

Verismo was never a great name for the school of operatic composition which flowered at the tail-end of the 19th century.  These ripe melodramas became all the rage after the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, whose very name hints at its unabashedly operatic nature.  Of course the “rustic chivalry” it speaks of is ironic, but nonetheless the honour-killing that follows from infidelity and inflamed passions has a lengthy operatic pedigree.  Mascagni, in his own mind at least, was no innovator.  The only thing that differentiates his story from thousands of others is that his protagonists (drawn from a novella by Giovanni Verga) are not kings or dukes but regular shabby peasants.  What we are seeing at work here is simply the democratisation of operatic behaviour, the notion that extremes of emotion and conduct are not merely the preserve of an etiolated nobility.

You can trace the genesis of this back to Mozart, if you feel inclined.  The operas of Handel contain as much emotional turmoil as anything before or since, but the resolution of their sticky plots always depends on the reassertion of the natural order: it is the king who must come to his senses before normal service can be resumed.  Mozart’s Figaro and Susanna turn this on its head: it is they, the servants, the beneficiaries of Europe’s burgeoning bourgeois revolution, who put things right, leaving the Count with a nasty feeling that something has slipped out of kilter which he cannot quite – with his intelligence severely circumscribed by generations of aristo inbreeding – put his finger on.

Thus does opera reflect its time, a lesson we are liable to forget as one period frock after another drifts across our stages.  Every social upheaval produces an artistic reaction which brings history to life.  The reactionary gloom of post-Napoleonic Europe gives us the jaunty cynicism of Rossini.  And it is no accident that Verdi’s Traviata, coming just after the ructions of 1848, is determinedly contemporary: he was set on the unthinkable idea that it should be performed in modern dress, but that was simply a step too far for the censor.

By the end of the 19th century such worries were beginning to seem like ancient history.  Italian unification, the Franco-Prussian War, Paris Commune and the rise of revolutionary socialism utterly changed the landscape.  Modernity and the life of “the people” was everything: the novels of Zola introduced an ostinato of gritty realism to literature that was bound to be reflected elsewhere.  But opera has never been a particularly suitable medium for the kitchen-sink drama.  The sensational and romantic always breaks in: a function of the form itself, as music with its unbridled, Dionysiac emotions takes over and shoves mere words into the background.

The ideal of operatic verismo was not realism but a ripping yarn.  And there is no greater example than Fédora.  From its beginnings, verismo opera has taken a lot of flak – for its vulgarity, reliance on formula, musical limitations, obsession with the everyday.  The criticisms come in the form of Bernard Shaw’s famous jibe at “Sardoodledom”, specifically directed at Fédora, (“… everything that has no business in a play.  The postal arrangements, the telegraphic arrangements, the police arrangements, the names and addresses, the hours and seasons, the tables of consanguinity, the railway and shipping time-tables… whirling round one incredible little stage-murder and finally vanishing in a gulp of impossible stage-poison…”).

But looked at sensibly, these are precisely the strengths of this new thing, which “jolted Italian opera out of its fancy dress slumber”.  Properly reduced – as Fédora was by Arturo Colautti, and La Tosca by Puccini’s A-Team of Giacosa and Illica – to exclude the less obviously operatic details of “Bradshaw and Baedeker, Court Guide and Post Office Directory”, verismo opera forms a template of the late-Victorian taste and morality which went on to inspire Hollywood to some of its greatest early moments.  If Fédora reminds me of anything, it is an early Hitchcock, Secret Agent or The Man Who Knew Too Much, even The Thirty-Nine Steps: atmospheric policiers, full of international conspiracy, skulduggery and romance, exotic locations, ideally with the creepy Peter Lorre causing mayhem.

It is often said that Giordano’s music sounds like a high-class film score; of course it would be more accurate to say that good film scores aspire to emulate Giordano and his contemporaries.  The music is brilliantly written to describe “realistic action” – which is to say, action of a kind that in real life would be most remarkable and certainly unaccompanied by music.  Bernard Shaw didn’t complain about the laborious reiterations of the minutiae of the lives of gods, giants and dwarves in Wagner: he complained about Sardou because Sardou was writing to provide people with relaxation and amusement, not instruction and correction.  (Not that Fédora is without its suitable moral lesson.  Consider: one inadvisable act of sexual intercourse between Vladimir and Loris’s wife results in no fewer than five deaths.)

What is perhaps most amazing about Fédora is simply the amount of stuff that Giordano manages to get into it.  The police thriller with its piquantly topical subject is spiced with characters who at least remind us of real life: Fédora Romazoff is of course a Romanov (as she was in the original play), the Polish pianist Lazinski is echoed in the Genevan conspirators of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, the death of Loris’s brother recalls the 1864 painting by Konstantin Flavitsky of Princess Tarakanova drowning in her cell in the grim Peter-and-Paul Fortress.  We go on a whirligig tour of Europe, musically spiced with plagal Russian cadences, a heel-down peasant song, Verdian “Parisian” waltzes, a Swiss ranz-des-vaches and plaintive mountain song to accompany the Alpine views of Act 3 (transposed from Paris by Colautti and Giordano for yet more scenic variety).

But there is musical sophistication too: the overlapping conversations at Olga’s Parisian party, the telegraphic text brilliantly transmuted into a compelling operatic dynamic; the nocturne-accompanied conversation between Fédora and Loris, at once an effective pastiche of Chopin and a vivid modernistic vision.  And the traditionally operatic is there too: more or less the first musical expression we hear from Loris is his big number “Amor ti vieta”: after this, we know that he’s OK, even if Fédora doesn’t yet.  That is what music is for.

Naturally, despite its sometimes determined modernism – the electric bells and telephones, the bicycles, Olga’s famous bloomers – nothing can disguise the fact that Fédora is really a good old-fashioned (have they ever gone out of fashion?) romantic melodrama, with its paper-trail of scented letters, gunshots in the dark, its vows, its heavy Byzantine swags and crosses and poisons.  At long last Russia, land of mystery and romance, is welcomed into the sisterhood of nations of blood-and-thunder operatic fairyland.