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Myortvïye dushi (‘Dead Souls’)locked

  • Laurel Fay

Operatic scenes in three acts by Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin to his own libretto after the epic novel by Nikolay Vasil’yevich Gogol; Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 7 June 1977.

Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov


Nozdryov landowner


Korobochka landowner


Sobakevich landowner


Plyushkin landowner


Manilov landowner


Mizhuyev landowner


Selifan Chichikov’s coachman

tenor in folk style

Peasant with a Goat


Bearded Peasant


Two Female Soloists

mezzo-soprano, contralto in folk style

Lament of the Soldier’s Wife


Anna Grigor’yevna a lady pleasant in all respects


Sof’ya Ivanovna a simply pleasant lady


The Governor


The Governor’s Wife


The Governor’s Daughter


The Procurator


The Chief of Police


The Postmaster


The President of the Chamber of Commerce


Lizan’ka Manilova


The Priest


The Police Captain


Sïsoy Pafnut’yevich


MacDonald Karlovich


Pavlushka Nozdrev’s house serf


Porfiriy Nozdrev’s house serf


Petrushka Chichikov’s footmen


Landowners, civil servants, guests at the ball, portraits on the walls, footmen, servants, coachmen

Setting Central Russia in the first half of the 19th century

Shchedrin worked on his opera for ten years, completing it in 1976. In adapting Gogol’s classic novel-poem, which tells the uniquely Russian story of a man who attempts to gain wealth by purchasing the ‘souls’ of dead serfs and exploiting a tax loophole, he remained faithful to the original in his portrayal of the principal characters’ idiosyncrasies of language and behaviour. Following in the tradition of the Gogol settings of Musorgsky and Shostakovich, Shchedrin attempted in Dead Souls to find the inevitable musical interpretation of the spoken intonations and rhythms. Each of the main characters sings a defining ‘portrait-aria’ and is further identified with a particular instrumental tone colour. The exception is the mysterious hero Chichikov, who adapts himself, chameleon-like, to the characteristics of each companion.

The opera is constructed on two parallel planes: the scenes which develop Chichikov’s adventures alternate with episodes conveying the timeless rituals and tragedies of rural peasant life played out against the endlessly unfolding road. The contrast was an attempt by the composer to interpret and amplify the symbolic significance of Gogol’s novel. One of the more unusual features of the scoring is the substitution of a small mixed chorus for violins. In 1984 Shchedrin was awarded the Lenin Prize for Dead Souls, the choral poem The Execution of Pugachyov and the Festive Overture.


Act 1.i (Introduction)

Sung by two female folk soloists and the orchestral chorus with a tragic remoteness, the lament ‘Ne belï, belï snegi’ (‘It is not the white snows’) becomes an important element in the musical structure of the opera as well as embodying the virtues of simple peasant life and the boundless expanse of Russia. While the text is traditional, the music is original (indeed, nowhere in the opera does Shchedrin quote from other sources); nevertheless, its folk roots – the lament is specifically modelled on traditional coachmen’s songs – are unmistakable.

1.ii (‘Lunch at the Procurator’s’)

Having arrived in a provincial city, Chichikov is honoured at a banquet of landowners and civil servants. Between repeated toasts, ‘Vivat! Pavel Ivanovich’, and protestations of undying affection, the participants ply their guest with prodigious amounts of food and drink, each introducing at the same time the specific manner of singing and accompanying musical colour which will be associated with his character.

1.iii (‘The Road’)

With the folk lament as backdrop, Selifan drives his master to Manilov’s estate.

1.iv (‘Manilov’)

Manilov and his wife greet Chichikov with obsequious warmth. Accompanied by a solo flute, Manilov in his portrait-arioso ‘O, Pavel Ivanovich’ – a sentimental parody of bel canto style – declares in fawning phrases that he would give half his fortune for a few of his guest’s virtues. Chichikov steers the conversation to his proposal to purchase dead serfs, which is initially met with incomprehension by his host. Chichikov manages to soothe his misgivings, and in the final trio husband and wife fantasize about ideal friendship as Chichikov adopts a heroic pose. As the scene ends, the portraits of Manilov’s relatives apprehensively mutter the phrase ‘dead souls’.

1.v (‘The Bumpy Road’)

Chichikov and Selifan are caught in a storm. The roughness of the road is reflected in the music as the master berates his long-suffering coachman, while the folk chorus sings a prayer to Elijah to bear the storm away. (‘Korobochka’)

Characterized by a solo bassoon, in her portrait-aria ‘Oy, batyushka, beda’ (‘O sir, misfortune’) Korobochka bemoans the bad times and the death of 18 serfs. Assuming a consolatory tone, Chichikov offers to buy them from her; the old woman drives a surprisingly hard bargain in a lively exchange. After Chichikov has departed, Korobochka, resuming the plaintive tone of her portrait-aria, decides to check the going rate for dead souls.


(‘Songs’) In an interlude, the folk soloists sing an anguished lament ‘Tï, polïn’, polïnechka, trava’ (‘You wormwood plant’) interwoven with phrases of two other songs in the chorus.

1.viii (‘Nozdryov’)

Nozdryov is characterized by the french horn, and in his portrait-aria he boasts about his property, gambling losses and drunken feats, concluding boisterously by confessing his affection for Chichikov. Chichikov is drawn reluctantly into a game of draughts as he bargains for his host’s dead serfs. Nozdryov is caught cheating, and fighting breaks out. The pandemonium intensifies in the concluding septet as the servants are summoned and the sleeping Mizhuyev wakes. The Police Captain arrests Nozdryov for beating another landowner.

Act 2.ix (‘Sobakevich’)

Sobakevich’s personality is captured by double basses and contrabassoon as well as by the obstinate accompaniment of his portrait-aria, in which he rails against all swindlers. He then demands 100 rubles per ‘soul’ and proves a stubborn negotiator. When Chichikov reminds him that the serfs are after all, dead, Sobakevich reluctantly accepts a price of two rubles apiece.

2.x (‘The Coachman Selifan’)

Against the familiar backdrop of choral folk singing, Selifan muses on the eternal predicament of the Russian peasantry.

2.xi (‘Plyushkin’)

Projected through the timbre of the oboe and with a monotonous vocal line inflected by wide falsetto leaps, the miserly Plyushkin is reluctant to welcome Chichikov – ‘Ya davnen’ko ne vizhu gostey’ (‘It’s a long time since I’ve seen guests’) – until he understands that he will not have to feed him. He complains of all the serfs who have died in the epidemic; out of ‘compassion’ Chichikov offers to buy them. Taking him for a fool, Plyushkin hastens to complete the deal.

2.xii (‘Lament of the Soldier’s Wife’)

Against sustained choral harmonies, a peasant woman bitterly laments the conscription of her son.

2.xiii (‘The Governor’s Ball’)

The guests speculate as to Chichikov’s reasons for buying so many peasants and make inflated estimates of his merits and wealth. In a triumphal aria, ‘Tsel’ cheloveka vsyo yeshchyo ne opredelena’ (‘Man’s goal is still not determined’), Chichikov expounds his commercial philosophy. The guests resolve to marry him to the Governor’s daughter; the courtship is portrayed in the pantomime ‘Love’. Nozdryov bursts in to reveal the true nature of Chichikov’s dealings, and Korobochka’s request for the going price of dead souls sends the gathering into confusion in the act’s concluding ensemble.

Act 3.xiv (‘Chant’)

The folk soloists repeat ‘It is not the white snows’.

3.xv (‘Chichikov’)

Chichikov curses all those who waste their money organizing balls in his aria, ‘Chtob vas chyort pobral vsekh’ (‘May the devil take you all’).

3.xvi (‘Two Ladies’)

Anna Grigor’yevna discusses the latest fashions with Sof’ya Ivanovna. When the gossip, against a ‘busy’ instrumental background, turns inevitably to Chichikov, Anna Grigor’yevna reveals that his real purpose was to abduct the Governor’s daughter; both women lambast her character.

3.xvii (‘Rumours in the Town’)

The phrase ‘Chto za pritcha’ (‘What an extraordinary thing’) serves as a unifying device in a rhythmic 16-part ensemble as the townspeople try to comprehend the situation. The landowners’ stories only confuse the issue. In a pantomime (‘Disaster’) Chichikov is refused admission to the homes of the town’s dignitaries. Speculation about his identity becomes increasingly far-fetched, and panic continues to mount until the Procurator drops dead.

3.xviii (‘The Procurator’s Funeral’)

Against the background of traditional funeral chanting, the Governor wonders why the Procurator lived and died, and Chichikov repeats his curse from scene xv.

3.xix (‘Scene and Finale’)

Nozdryov tells Chichikov that the people now take him for a spy or thief and upbraids him for planning to abduct the Governor’s daughter. To make his escape, Chichikov calls Selifan. Against a reprise of ‘It is not the white snows’ the coachman coaxes his horses. Two peasants conclude, after debating the state of the wheels, that the carriage will not take Chichikov far.