Taras Bulba (opera)

Taras Bulba
Opera by Mykola Lysenko
Stamp USSR 1952 CPA1674.jpg
Russian stamp depicting the title hero and its creator Nikolai Gogol (left)
LibrettistMykhailo Starytsky
Based onTaras Bulba
by Nikolai Gogol
1955 (1955) (present-day version)

Taras Bulba is an opera in four acts by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. The libretto was written by Mykhailo Starytsky (the composer's cousin) after the novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol. The opera, which was unrevised at the time of the composer's death in 1912, was first performed in 1924. Present-day performances are however based on thorough revisions, affecting the text, the music and the orchestration, carried out in the 1930s and 1950s.

Performance history

Lysenko worked on Taras Bulba during 1880-1891[1] but it was probably his insistence on the use of Ukrainian for performance that prevented any productions during his lifetime. Lysenko was reputedly a descendant of the 17th century Cossack leader Vovgura Lys, so the story may have had a special significance to him.[2] Shortly after completing it he played the score to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who reportedly "listened to the whole opera with rapt attention, from time to time voicing approval and admiration. He particularly liked the passages in which national, Ukrainian, touches were most vivid... Tchaikovsky embraced Lysenko and congratulated him on his talented composition."

The history of the present form of the opera is complex. A piano score was published in 1913, but much of the composer's original orchestration was lost. The prelude to the fourth act was first given at a concert in Kiev under the baton of Reinhold Glière in 1914.[3] The first performance of the full opera took place in 1924 in Kharkiv. Although this was unsuccessful, other better received productions were carried out in Kiev (1927) and Tbilisi, (1930), which generated the idea of a revision of the work. This was carried out in 1937 by Maksym Rylsky (text), Lysenko's pupil Levko Revutsky (music), and Borys Lyatoshynsky (orchestration), and performed in Moscow. This version in turn met with the criticism that it had departed too far from Lysenko's intentions. It was not until after World War II that the same trio produced the present-day performing version, which was premiered in Kiev in 1955. The opera remains in the repertory of the Kiev Opera House, which has also performed the opera abroad in Wiesbaden (1982), Dresden (1987) and Zagreb (1988).[4] The opera house traditionally performs the opera at the end of each operatic season in Kiev.

The work's structural defects may to a large extent be a consequence of its history, and to the fact that the composer was never able to adjust the work after hearing it in performance. The opera marks a great advance on the composer's earlier works such as Natalka Poltavka and Utoplena with its folklore and nationalistic elements being much more closely integrated in a continuous musical framework which also clearly shows a debt to Tchaikovsky. But the episodic nature of the libretto (which may be due to some extent to political considerations during its revision in the Soviet era[citation needed]) is a serious problem. There are extensive non-narrative excursions for dances and patriotic marches and choruses; Kudryiaha is chosen to lead the Cossacks in a long scene in Act III and then vanishes from the rest of the opera; there is no attempt to balance the historical events with the story of Andriy and Maryltsya (which is effectively entirely squeezed into the antipenultimate scene); the absence of emotional or musical transition from the death of Andriy to the triumphalist conquest of Dubno (the final scene, which involves no singing) is evident and uncomfortable.

Amongst those who have sung the role of Taras is the Ukrainian singer Boris Gmyrya, who also featured in a recording of the opera.


Role Voice type
Taras Bulba bass
Ostap, his son baritone
Andriy, his son tenor
Nastya, his wife contralto
Maryltsya, daughter of the Polish governor of Dubno soprano
Governor bass
Kobzar tenor
Chorus: citizens, Cossacks, etc


The opera is set in Kiev, Taras's village in Ukraine, the Zaporozhian Sich, and Dubno, in the 17th century, at a time when Poland sought supremacy in the region. This synopsis is based on the present (1955) performing version.

Act I

The opera is preceded by an orchestral overture. It opens in Kiev, which is occupied by the Polish szlachta, whose servants disperse a crowd listening to the song of a kobzar (Ukrainian bard). Taras Bulba leaves his sons Ostap and Andriy at the monastery to be educated. Andriy has already been impressed by a Polish girl he has seen (who turns out to be Maryltsya, daughter of the Polish governor of Dubno). Ostap encourages the kobzar to sing a patriotic song; this angers the Poles, and in a scuffle the bard is killed.

Act II

Taras's village. Ostap and Andriy return from Kiev and greet their mother Nastya. Bulba's friend Tovkach tells of the war being unleashed throughout Ukraine by the Poles. Despite his wife's protestations, Taras determines to take his sons to the Sich, the Cossack stronghold, so as to participate in the struggles. Nastya collapses.


The Sich. Taras successfully encourages the idle residents to rouse themselves for battle. Andriy and Ostap look forward to this; when Andriy has brief forebodings, Ostap promises always to support him. Drumbeats summon a council (rada) of the Cossacks; with Taras's support, they elect a new, more pugnacious hetman, Kyrdiaha, to lead them. He declares his intention to go into battle.

Act IV

Scene 1

The Cossack camp. The Cossacks are besieging Dubno, where Maryltsya's father is governor. She has sent her Tatar maid to find Andriy, and to beg his help as the inhabitants are suffering from starvation. Andriy agrees to help and, with the maid, takes food into the town through a secret passage.

Scene 2

Inside the castle. Andriy and Maryltsya express their love for each other. Andriy asks the Governor for her hand; the szlachta object on class grounds. On the advice of his priest, the Governor considers it expedient to allow Andriy to marry, and appoints him a Colonel in the Polish Army.

Scene 3

The Cossack camp. Taras hears news that the Tatars have destroyed the Sich. Then an escaping prisoner tells him of Andriy's desertion. Troops under Andriy make a sortie from the castle, and Taras kills his own son for his treason. Ostap's feelings are torn and he sings a lament for his brother.

Scene 4

In a purely orchestral scene Taras and Ostap lead the Cossacks to victory against the Poles and take over the town of Dubno.

This ending significantly differs from Gogol's original in which first Ostap and then Taras are captured by the Poles and given cruel public executions. Many other significant features of the novel - notably the equivocal behaviour of Taras and the Cossacks to local Jews - are also omitted (see article Taras Bulba).


web page about Ukrainian opera "Taras Bulba" by Mykola Lysenko. Audio files of arias and video files from opera. http://www.orpheusandlyra.com/retro.html


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