Kuznetsova, Maria (1880–1966)

views updated

Kuznetsova, Maria (1880–1966)

Russian soprano whose vast repertoire, expressive voice, and powerful acting place her in the highest rank of singers in the early 20th century. Name variations: Mariya Nikolayevna Kuznetsov; Marija Nikolaevna Kuznecova. Born Maria Nikolaievna Kuznetsova in Odessa, Russia, in 1880; died in Paris, April 26, 1966; daughter of Nikolai Kuznetsov; married to a son of Jules Massenet.

Maria Kuznetsova was born into the brilliant cultural universe of late tsarist Russia, a world of profound contrasts between glittering balls, ballets, and operas, and the oppressive poverty and illiteracy of the peasantry. From Maria's earliest years, the newest ideas in music, literature and the theater were discussed in her home. Her father Nikolai Kuznetsov was a highly regarded painter whose portrait of the composer Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky has become universally recognizable. Initially, Maria showed great talent as a dancer, and she first appeared on stage in ballet at St. Petersburg's Court Opera. Soon, however, she decided to become a singer, studying for a number of years with Joakim Tartakov. Her 1905 operatic debut at the Mariinsky Theater as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust was an unqualified triumph. Acclaimed as a star, Kuznetsova took part in several operatic premieres, including that of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh on February 20, 1907. Her starring roles over the next few years included Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Juliette in the Gounod opera Roméo et Juliette. Starting in 1906, she began to sing outside Russia, performing in both Berlin and Paris.

Paris quickly became Kuznetsova's second artistic home. Much beloved at both the Grand Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, she appeared in various French roles, including Chabrier's Gwendoline (1910) and Massenet's Roma (1912), as well as in the standard roles of Aïda and Norma. In 1909, Kuznetsova's international reputation was further enhanced when she made her debut at Covent Garden. That same year, she crossed the Atlantic to perform at New York City's Manhattan Opera House as well as in Chicago. In 1914, Kuznetsova returned temporarily to dancing, appearing with great success both in Paris and in London, where she created the role of Potiphar's wife in the Richard Strauss ballet Josephs-Legende. She also sang the role of Yaroslavna in the first British performance of Aleksander Borodin's Prince Igor. Given at the Drury Lane Theater and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, this was the legendary "Russian season" that introduced a wealth of new Russian opera and ballet to the English-speaking public.

As a Russian patriot, Kuznetsova felt dutybound to return home at the start of World War I, performing on stage as well as in benefit concerts for the war effort. In 1916, she braved the Uboat-infested Atlantic to perform once more in the United States. On her return to Russia in 1917, she saw her country first overthrow tsarist tyranny and then quickly descend into anarchy, with the year ending in a seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Determined to escape the Communist regime and Vladimir Lenin's proletarian dictatorship, Kuznetsova succeeded in fleeing by ship to Sweden, having disguised herself as a cabin boy and then hiding in a trunk. Virtually penniless, she supported herself in her Swedish refuge for the next several years by giving song recitals with the tenor Georges Pozemofsky, also performing as a dancer during the same program.

By 1919, Kuznetsova's career was once more on track when she was invited to sing major roles at the Copenhagen and Stockholm opera houses. In 1920, she appeared again on the stage of Covent Garden, and the same year she settled in Paris, which had been transformed into a center of emigres from revolutionary Russia. Married to a son of the French composer Jules Massenet, Kuznetsova was a major personality in the social and artistic life of interwar Paris. Versatile as ever during these years, she not only sang operatic roles, but also appeared in operettas and even experimented with a new career as a motion-picture actress. In 1927, she took on another role, as impresario of a new opera company comprised largely of Russian emigres, the Opéra Russe, which survived until 1933 when it succumbed to the economic depression.

During the Opéra Russe's relatively brief but brilliant existence, Kuznetsova was not only its director but its unchallenged prima donna. Specializing in the Russian operatic repertoire, it had Paris as its base but made guest appearances at major opera houses throughout Europe, including Barcelona, London, Madrid, as well as at Milan's La Scala. In 1929, Kuznetsova and her company toured South America, presenting several previously unheard works in Buenos Aires, including Mussorgsky's The Fair at Sorotchinsk and Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegourotchka (The Snow Maiden). As late as the mid-1930s, Kuznetsova was still singing professionally. In 1934, she replaced the celebrated Conchita Supervia for a performance of Franz Lehár's operetta Frasquita, and in 1936 she undertook a strenuous and successful tour of Japan. After her retirement from the stage, she accepted an assignment as artistic advisor of the Russian operatic repertoire at Barcelona's Teatro Lirico. She lived the final decades of her life in Paris, dying there on April 26, 1966.

Boasting a repertoire ranging from the entire body of Russian opera to Salome, Aïda, Norma, Mimi and Gounod's Juliette, Kuznetsova not only possessed what critic Alan Blyth has described as a "gleaming voice and shimmering vibrato," but also was a famously beautiful woman whose stage charisma was legendary. Added to this were her talents as a dancer, which led some of her contemporaries to compare her artistry to that of Isadora Duncan . Many have described her superb acting talent as being equal to that of the legendary basso Fyodor Chaliapin. Highly expressive both as a singer and an actress, Kuznetsova left as a tangible legacy only 36 recordings, both acoustic and electrical, made between 1905 and 1928 for the Pathé and Odeon labels. Fortunately, all of these performances are of the highest artistic quality and have been transferred to the compact disc format in Pearl Records' compilation Singers of Imperial Russia. Critic Albert Innaurato has called Kuznetsova "one of the great singers on disc [whose] records have a fragile, tender allure, the glamorous magic in her sound closely fit to a musical sensitivity that is hard to match."


Blyth, Alan. "'Singers of Imperial Russia,'" in Opera. Vol. 44, no. 5. May 1993, pp. 520–525.

Innaurato, Albert. "A Taste for Caviar," in Opera News. Vol. 57, no. 13. March 13, 1993, pp. 10–12, 14, 15.

Kinrade, D.C. "Marija Nikolaevna Kuznecova," in The Record Collector. Vol. 12, 1959–60, pp. 156–159.

Levik, Sergei Iurevich. The Levik Memoirs: An Opera Singer's Notes. Translated by Edward Morgan. With a foreword by the Earl of Harewood. London: Symposium Records, 1995.

Pokhitonov, Daniil Ilich. Iz proshlogo russkoi opery (From the Past of the Russian Opera). Edited by S.S. Danilova. Leningrad: Vseros. teatralnoe ob-vo, 1949.

Stark, Eduard Aleksandrovich ("Zigfrid"). Peterburgskaia opera i ee mastera, 1890–1910 (The St. Petersburg Opera and Its Stars, 1890–1910). Leningrad: Gos. izd-vo "Iskusstvo," 1940.

related media:

Singers of Imperial Russia. Vol. 3, Pearl CD 9004-6.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia