A Life for the Tsar

A Life for the Tsar (Russian: Жизнь за царя, Zhizn' za tsarya), as it is known in English, although in Soviet times its name was Ivan Susanin (Russian: Иван Сусанин) is a "patriotic-heroic tragic opera" in four acts with an epilogue by Mikhail Glinka. The original Russian libretto, based on historical events, was written by Nestor Kukolnik, Baron Egor Fyodorovich (von) Rozen, Vladimir Sollogub and Vasily Zhukovsky. It premiered on 27 November 1836 OS (9 December NS) at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg. The historical basis of the plot involves Ivan Susanin, a patriotic hero of the early 17th century who gave his life in the expulsion of the invading Polish army for the newly elected Tsar Mikhail, the first of the Romanov dynasty, elected in 1613.[1]


Composition history

The plot of A Life for the Tsar had been used earlier in 1815, when Catterino Cavos, an Italian-Russian composer, had written a two-act singspiel with the same subject and title. The original title of the opera was to be Ivan Susanin, after the hero, but when Nicholas I attended a rehearsal, Glinka changed the title to A Life for the Tsar as an ingratiating gesture.[1] This title was retained in the Russian Empire.

In 1924, under the new Soviet regime, it appeared under the title Hammer and Sickle, but that production was not successful and was shelved. On 26 February 1939 it reappeared under the title Glinka had originally chosen, Ivan Susanin.[2]

Glinka and the writers with whom he was associated chose, in Susanin, a hero of Russian nationalism well suited to the mood of the time. The opera was immediately hailed as a great success, and became the obligatory season-opener in the Imperial Russian opera theaters. A Life for the Tsar occupies an important position in Russian musical theater as the first native opera to win a permanent place in the repertoire. It was one of the first Russian operas to be known outside Russia.

Performance history

The opera was given its premiere performance on 27 November 1836 in Saint Petersburg conducted by Catterino Cavos with set designs by Andrei Roller. It was followed several years later with its premiere in Moscow on 7 September (Old Style) 1842 in a new production with sets by Serkov and Shenyan.

Osip Petrov as Susanin
Fyodor Shalyapin as Susanin
Fyodor Shalyapin as Susanin

Glinka's play was featured heavily throughout the Romanov tercentenary celebrations. It was performed in a gala performance at Marinsky Theatre,[3] Performances of A Life for the Tsar was staged throughout Imperial Russia by schools, regiments and amateur companies. Pamphlets and the penny press printed the story of Susanin "ad nauseam", and one newspaper told how Susanin had showed each and every soldier how to fulfill his oath to the sovereign. The image of the seventeenth century peasant features prominently at the bottom of the Romanov Monument in Kostroma, where a female personification of Russia gave blessings to a kneeled Susanin. In Kostroma, Tsar Nicholas II was even presented with a group of peasants from Potemkin who claimed to be descendants of Susanin.[4]

Publication history


In keeping with Glinka's European training, much of A Life for the Tsar was structured according to conventional Italian and French models of the period. Nevertheless, several passages in the opera are based on Russian folk songs or folk melodic idioms that become a full part of the musical texture.

Most importantly, this opera laid the foundation for the series of Russian nationalistic historical operas continued by works such as Serov's Rogneda, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov's Maid of Pskov, Tchaikovsky's The Oprichnik or Mazeppa, and Borodin's Prince Igor.


Role Voice type World premiere,
St. Petersburg
27 November (Old Style) (9 December, NS) 1836
(Conductor: Catterino Cavos)
Moscow premiere
7 September (Old Style) 1842
(conductor: Ivan Iogannis )
Ivan Susanin, a peasant of the village of Domnino bass Osip Petrov Dmitriy Kurov
Antonida, his daughter soprano Mariya Stepanova Mariya Leonova
Vanya, Susanin's adopted son contralto Anna Petrova-Vorobyova Anfisa Petrova
Bogdan Sobinin, a militiaman, Antonida's fiance tenor Lev Leonov Alexander Bantyshev
Commander of the Polish Detachment bass Sergey Baykov
A Polish courier tenor I. Makarov
Commander of the Russian Detachment bass Aleksey Yefremov
Chorus and silent: Peasant men and women, militiamen, Polish nobles and ladies, knights

Performance practice

As popular as the opera was, its monarchist libretto was an embarrassment to the Soviet state. After some unsuccessful attempts were made to remedy this situation, in 1939 the poet S. M. Gorodetsky rewrote the text to remove references to the Tsar and otherwise make the libretto politically palatable.[5]


Act 1

The village of Domnino

Antonida is eager to marry Sobinin, but her father Susanin refuses permission until a Russian has been duly chosen to take the Tsar's throne. When Sobinin informs him that the Grand Council in Moscow has chosen a Tsar, everyone celebrates.

Act 2


In a sumptuous hall, the nobility are celebrating the Polish dominance over the Russians with singing and dancing. Suddenly a messenger comes in, with the news that Mikhail Romanov has been selected as the Tsar of Russia and is now in hiding. The Poles vow to overthrow him.

Act 3

Susanin's cabin

Susanin and his adopted son Vanya pledge to defend the new Tsar. Susanin blesses Sobinin and Antonida on their upcoming wedding when a detachment of Polish soldiers bursts in, demanding to know the Tsar's whereabouts. Instead Susanin sends Vanya to warn the Tsar while he, Susanin, leads the soldiers off the trail, into the woods. Antonida is devastated. Sobinin gathers some men to go on a rescue mission.

Act 4

A dense forest

Sobinin reassures his men of the rightness of their mission. Night falls. In a part of the forest near a monastery, Vanya knocks at the gates and alerts the inhabitants to spirit the Tsar away. Susanin has led the suspicious Polish troops into an impassable, snow-covered area of the forest. The Poles sleep while Susanin waits for the dawn and bids farewell to his children. A blizzard sets in, and when day breaks, the Poles awake. When they realize that Susanin has deceived them, they kill him.


Red Square, Moscow.

Across the stage walks a crowd of people, celebrating the triumph of the new Tsar. Alone in their own solemn procession, Antonida, Sobinin, and Vanya mourn Susanin. A detachment of Russian troops comes upon them and, after discovering their connection with Susanin, comforts them. As the scene changes to Red Square, the people proclaim glory to the Tsar and to Susanin's memory.

Principal arias and numbers


Act 1

Cavatina and Rondo: "To the field, to the field", «В поле, в поле» (Antonida)

Act 2

Chorus: Polonaise, Полонез
Dance: Krakowiak, Краковяк
Dance: Waltz, Вальс
Dance: Mazurka, Мазурка

Act 3

Song: "When they killed the little bird's mother", «Как мать убили у малого птенца» (Vanya)

Act 4

Aria: "Brother in the darkness we are not able to find our enemy" No. 18; (Sobinine)
Aria: "They sense the truth!", «Чуют правду!» No. 21; (Susanin)
Glory (0:07)
Music of Kremlin chimes is played at 3 and 9 o'clock AM and PM. Chimes play melody of the chorus "Glory" from the opera "A Life for the Tsar". Playback rhythm was increased for easily recognizing of melody.

Problems playing this file? See media help.


Chorus: "Glory, Glory to you, holy Rus'!", «Славься, славься, святая Русь!» (People)

Orchestral excerpts heard in the concert hall consist largely of the overture and the Polish numbers of the second act. Another excerpt, also used by concert bands and military bands is the Slavsya finale arranged for wind band as a fanfare, famous due to its use in the Moscow Victory Parade of 1945 and in other military parades since then. This finale piece was adapted for and is also part of the repertoire of the world-famous Alexandrov Ensemble since 2004.


The opera is scored for two flutes, two oboes (second oboe doubling cor anglais), two clarinets (in B flat and A), two bassoons, four horns, two clarino natural trumpets, three trombones, ophicleide, timpani, bells, harp, strings, as well as two offstage wind bands or concert bands, offstage clarinet in A, offstage chromatic (valved) trumpet, offstage drum, offstage bells. Some pieces are also scored for full orchestra, including the dance segments. The finale piece, another popular composition played in patriotic concerts and other events, can be also arranged for a full military band or concert band with the bells and chromatic trumpets and also for the Balalaika and the Bayan accordion, as heard in several cover versions.


Source: operadis-opera-discography.org.uk


  1. 1 2 Osborne (2007) p. 143
  2. Norman Davies, Europe
  3. Figes, p. 4–5 & 10
  4. Figes, p. 10–11
  5. Hodge (1998) p. 4
  6. Act 4 and the Epilogue can contain more than one set of stage decor. For more detailed plot descriptions see Osborne (2007) p. 144 and Annesley (1920) pp 697-700. Note that Annesley incorrectly states that the libretto was based on Prosper Mérimée's Les faux Démétrius, épisode de l'histoire de Russie. However this was not published until 1853.
  7. Philip Stuart. Decca Classical, 1929-2009 (Discography) .
Cited sources

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