Aida from a Weaving Factory

This year marked the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Boris Pokrovsky. The Bakhrushin Museum dedicated an exhibition titled "The Rise to Opera" in honor of the great director. Among its exhibits is a handmade album of Natalia Sokolova, one of the performers of the title role in the production of "Aida" at the Bolshoi Theatre.


The album's 26 pages contain 39 photographs and eight autograph notes. The story behind the creation of this moving artifact is unknown. Most likely, Sokolova made it for the soul, so to speak, and for posterity. This is how women have been creating their romantic and sentimental albums both now and always.

"Aida", which was staged in 1951 at the Bolshoi Theatre, became a legend thanks to director Boris Pokrovsky, conductor Alexander Melik-Pashayev and stage designer Tamara Starzhenetskaya. Their names are printed on the album's title page, which was created in a printing office (Sokolova must have had help from one of her acquaintances with the making of that page).

By that time Pokrovsky and Melik-Pashayev had such masterpiece productions as "Eugene Onegin" and "War and Peace" under their belts. "Aida," however, held a special place in their lives. Irina Arkhipova, who made her 1956 dйbut at the Bolshoi Theatre in the role of Amneris (the legendary Vera Davydova performed this part before her), admitted, "For me, personally, the most important of Pokrovsky's productions that I performed in was 'Aida'." Ivan Petrov, the famous opera bass singer (in Paris they called him "the new Shalyapin") who has been performing the role of Ramfis for over 10 years, wrote the following about Melik-Pashayev, "No one else made 'Aida' sound like Alexander Shamilievich did. I would listen to it not only when I myself was singing a part in the opera, but, like other actors, I tried not to miss any production of 'Aida', where Melik-Pashayev was conducting.... No other conductor that I know of could give it such variety of colors as Alexander Shamilievich did."

Unlike the seasoned veterans Pokrovsky and Melik-Pashayev, stage designer Tamara Starzhenetskaya was a newcomer. Nevertheless, in her work on "Aida" she managed to measure up to her famous colleagues. As Galina Vishnevskaya recalled, "Stage design-wise this was the best 'Aida'. I say this with full authority. I performed my Aida in all the big theatres of the world. And nowhere did it have such stage design and such direction by Pokrovsky as at the Bolshoi Theatre. A brilliant production."

Pokrovsky and Melik-Pashayev each left a note under their photographs in Sokolova's album. The conductor's note is laconic; the director's is more diffuse. He wrote the following, "The production's finale is a celebration, a triumph of love and human emotions. You can jail and destroy human flesh, but not human emotions."

Melik-Pashayev wrote about it as well in an article in "Soviet Artist" that was dedicated to the premiere of "Aida." "The opera finale was read differently. We went with soft, lightened tones. We wanted the audience to perceive the tragic death of Aida and Radames as a triumph of the eternal and honorable feeling of love."

Pokrovsky in Sokolova's album shared his thoughts about the opera's individual characters, such as, for example, Aida's father. "Amonasro wages a just war, even though history doomed it to failure. And that means that his actions are honorable; that he is not a barbarian."

The following lines from Pokrovsky's 1973 book "On Operatic Stage Direction" may serve as a unique sort of decryption of the above note, "At one time it was customary to accentuate Amonasro's barbaric, savage disposition in the character's on-stage representation. He was contrasted with the civilized priests, portrayed as a cruel destroyer of his daughter's emotional attachments and a perfidious betrayer of sacred feelings. Meanwhile, the most basic analysis of the opera's musical dramaturgy is evidence of something completely different. As a counter to the dull, constrained theme that characterizes the Egyptian priests and even the pharaoh himself, Amonasro's music has a lot of warmth, variety, profound humanity, even tenderness, inner conviction and will. Nowhere will you find 'savagery' in his language intonations."

The conductor's and the director's notes in the album are followed by photographs of various scenes from the operatic production and portraits of individual performers in stage make-up. Pictures of the famous Vera Davydova -- Stalin's favorite singer -- predominate on the album's pages. "Aida" was special to her. Davydova made her dйbut as Amneris on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre back in 1932. She performed the part of the pharaoh's daughter 20 years later as well, at the premiere of Pokrovsky's production in 1951, and she continued to sing in this production for several more years.

The album's icing on the cake, however, is the section titled "My Work on Aida." Several pages of very moving text, written in elevated style by Sokolova herself.

Nowadays, avid music lovers are likely the only ones who remember her name. Yet in the 1950s, Sokolova (lyrico-dramatic soprano) was one of the Bolshoi Theatre's leading actresses. Her repertoire included Liza of "The Queen of Spades," Cherubino of "The Marriage of Figaro," Dasha of Serov's "Enemy Force", Galka of Monyushko's opera of the same name. The height of Sokolova's career, however, was her performance of the part of Aida. Though, to tell the truth, it was a different singer, Nina Pokrovskaya, who performed the title role at the premiere screenings. Sokolova sang Aida on stage a bit later.

In her album, Sokolova admits that the part of the Ethiopian slave was her dream of a lifetime. The singer considers virtually every event in her biography as a "prelude" to that work. Even her job at the knitting mill, oddly enough. The thing is that Natalia Sokolova's biography is somewhat unusual. She came to the Bolshoi Theatre from a trade union song and dance ensemble. She had neither the special education nor the experience of working on a theatre stage. Her past included life in an orphanage (Sokolova didn't remember her parents) and her work at a knitting mill in the winding department after graduating from a seven-year school. It is from there that the young girl came to the Central House of Amateur Arts of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions to study singing. This laid the foundation to her career.

The Soviet press wrote the following about Sokolova, "Our country is the only place where talents can truly flourish. In the olden days there were many singers with good voices among the general public, but the majority of them died in poverty and distress. Nowadays, every gifted person in our country is lavished with attention and can achieve great success."

Meanwhile, the singer herself dreamed of playing the part of the seductive Ethiopian captive for many years... "There is nothing strange about it," she wrote. "Any singer who had heard this opera even once, who had even once been touched by the spirit of its solemn monumentality and moving lyricism, will never again give up the desire to perform in this opera him or herself..."

In 1953, the Bolshoi made a recording of "Aida" with Sokolova's solo performance. This recording, several reviews and photographs, as well as the album itself are all testimony of an orphanage-raised girl's dream come true. In the late 1950s the part of Aida at the Bolshoi Theatre was already being brilliantly performed by Galina Vishnevskaya...


Anna Chepurnova



We would like to express our thanks to the employees of the A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum -- head of the scientific methodological department Mikhail Nikolaevich Vorobiev and deputy director for scientific work Svetlana Viktorovna Semikolenova for their assistance in the preparation of these materials.  


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