Conventional histories of Russian opera mark Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 opera Zhizn’ za tsarya (A Life for the Tsar) as the point of origin for Russian nationalist opera that quickly burst into full bloom, yet by the middle of the century homegrown opera had fallen out of performance repertory in favor of Western European and particularly Italian imports. It was around this time that a group of amateur composers later known as the kuchka (the “Mighty Handful” or “Mighty Five”) re-ignited the debate around creating a uniquely Russian genre of opera; however, their efforts only obscured Russian opera’s European roots rather than establish a completely separate genre. Yet their critical campaign proved successful, and the idea of Russian opera as a uniquely nationalist genre remains especially prevalent. This article examines Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka (1856), one of the earliest examples of this new type of Russian nationalist opera, and how it responds to the dominance of Italian opera in Russia during the mid-century by embedding Italian operatic conventions into the score itself. Rusalka also inaugurated the operatic trend of adapting literary works by Aleksandr Pushkin, the writer often cited as the father of Russian literature. This article illustrates how both Pushkin’s dramatic Rusalka and Dargomyzhsky’s operatic adaptation of it a generation later imitated Western European literary and theatrical conventions. Paradoxically, the ways in which Pushkin and Dargomyzhsky would conceal these Western parallelisms would later be hailed as markers of a uniquely “Russian” literary and operatic style in a critical campaign designed to erase Russia’s long history of artistic dialogue with the wider Continent.

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