Soldiers, sirens and a ‘sign of hope’ as Ukrainian opera premieres in Lviv/ The Guardian

Charlotte Higgins in Lviv
Thu 11 May 2023 05.00 BST

Singers perform in the opera The Terrible Revenge, based on the story by Nikolai Gogol, at the Lviv National Opera. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

After an unplanned intermission, opera based on Gogol’s The Terrible Revenge swerves its tragic ending

Lviv’s opera house is a magnificent, Habsburg-era froth of red velvet, gilded cornicing and writhing caryatids. And to the casual observer, the audience, as they settled into their seats, could have been opera lovers anywhere in Europe – but for a few small details.

First, the presence of uniformed soldiers in the boxes and prime seats of the stalls. Second, the pre-show announcement that, after asking patrons to switch off their phones, offered instructions on what to do in the event of an air raid alert.

People wait for the start of the opera after the sirens. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

Third, the fact that, before settling into the overture, the orchestra struck up the national anthem – at which the audience rose as one and, hands clamped to chests, sang with full operatic fervour.

The show was a new opera by Yevhen Stankovych, at 80 one of Ukraine’s most significant senior composers, getting its premiere in the teeth of Russia’s war.

In the wake of the full-scale invasion – and especially given Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine is historically indivisible from Russia – culture and the arts are part of the country’s resistance.

Based on Gogol’s short story The Terrible Revenge, the opera was directed by Andreas Weirich, a house director at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. “We did some of the rehearsals in the bomb shelter,” he said. “At times there were four air raid sirens a day – it became a new normal.”

The opera house itself, in its relatively safe position, became a haven in the early days of the war for colleagues from other companies farther east. It is one of six Ukrainian opera houses and the farthest west – though one of those six, in Donetsk, has been under illegal occupation by Russia since 2014.

Ukrainians in front of the Lviv National Opera. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

It initially took in members of the Kharkiv State Opera and Ballet Theatre, whose building was pummelled by Russian artillery in spring and summer last year.

And at the moment, five company members of the Lviv National Opera – two ballet dancers, two set painters and an opera singer – are fighting on the frontline, in Bakhmut and the Donetsk region.

Before the evening’s performance, Taras Berezhansky and Daryna Lytovchenko, who sang the roles of Danilo, the Cossack at the centre of Gogol’s folktale, and his wife, Katerina, reflected on the power of performing Ukrainian contemporary music during a time of invasion.

Premiering the work was “not just important, it’s necessary – because we have for so long undervalued ourselves, hiding behind Russian culture”, Lytovchenko said.

“It’s emotional for us not only performing at this time, but because we’re giving a message to the audience about what’s happening in our shared history with Russia,” Berezhansky said from his dressing room, its windows taped up in the ubiquitous wartime measure against shattering glass.

The Terrible Revenge is based on the story by Nikolai Gogol. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

He was referring to the opera’s storyline, in which Danilo’s father-in-law, the Witcher, turns out to be a dark force, intent on death and destruction.

And, although Weirich was careful not to make too obvious an identification – “It would have been a very flat idea to give the Witcher a Putin mask,” he said – it was not a great leap for audiences to make the connection between the character and the Russian president as the story unfolded on new.

“The story is like a myth – it tells you what can happen. Myths always come around again,” Weirich said.

Half an hour into the performance, a figure discreetly walked across the front row of the stalls and leaned over the edge of the orchestra pit, whispering into the conductor Volodymyr Sirenko’s ear.

The chief conductor, Volodymyr Sirenko, at the Lviv National Opera. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

Without fuss, Sirenko brought the music to a halt and the curtain came down: an air raid warning. The audience dutifully filed down to the bomb shelter – which, happily for all concerned, was also the opera house’s bar.

After half an hour later, the alert – raised in this case because of MiG fighter jets taking off in Russia – was lifted and the performance resumed.

The show continued without incident. Readers of Gogol, though, would have noticed that the libretto and production swerved the bleakly tragic outcome of the original short story.

In the Gogol, the Witcher murders Danilo and Katerina’s young son. In Stankovych’s opera, he survives – a moment reinforced by Weirich’s production, which has the young child impatiently pushing away his murderous grandfather.

Daryna Lytovchenko at the Lviv National Opera. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

“I had to give the Ukrainians a way to end the curse – I had to give a sign of hope,” Weirich said.

“There were a few utterly minor changes that I made to the end,” said Stankovych, speaking from Kyiv. “This is because I, as a human and as a composer, could not accept that no heirs could be left to inherit this land … Because Gogol has, of course, a rather tragic and terrible ending.”

It is not the first opera Stankoych has based on the Ukrainian writer’s work. In 1978, his folk opera When the Fern Blooms was about to be premiered when, as the composer recalled, “it was banned, it was removed after the dress rehearsal”. The sets and costumes were destroyed and the score consigned to “the dusty storerooms of the archive”, in the words of a review of its eventual premiere, in 2011.

The Soviet authorities “kindly welcomed me not to talk about this too much … and the matter was closed,” Stankovych recalled.

The audience watch the performance in Lviv. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

“In short, in the Soviet Union there was a systematic – or sometimes brightly expressed – silent, gentle struggle against Ukrainian culture, language, against Ukrainian consciousness,” he said.

For the moment, Russian composers are absent from the Lviv opera house programme. That is not a problem for Lytovchenko, the soprano. “When I’m singing Stankovych, I don’t miss Russian composers,” she said.