January 2009 – A Russian Winter

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

April 3rd, 2009

Tchaikovsky’s Operas  

This winter has taken on a distinctly Russian theme, as temperatures plummet to -10, and the lake at Chaoyang Park (opposite to where I live) freezes over. In watching the perennial Tchaikovsky ballets that do the rounds at this time of year, I was struck – and not for the first time, about how seasonal there are. Further research lead to me Tchaikovsky’s operas, and an entirely new world opened up. 

I used to sing amateur opera (once even for a British Opera North production in Leeds many years ago) and am a natural tenor. Meggie also has a love of opera (well, she is Italian), so it was with some delight we purchased, from the State Music Store at Wangfujing a collection of various operas that had been held at St. Petersburgs Marinsky Theatre, a building described by my friend Alan Babington-Smith as “the most beautiful building in the world”. So, armed with Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, and Mazzepa, we settled in for some long winter nights and a series of Russian classics. Several things struck me when comparing them with Italian opera – firstly, the sheer length – the Russians love to talk and the average opera extends for well over three hours – and the far higher degree and competency of the choral singing, as opposed to the Arias for which Italian opera is so rightly famous. Plus, of course the dread of Russian winters – their operas always seem to hinge on tragic pistol duels at dawn during which the hero gets mortally wounded. The count down during Eugene Onegin as the second counts out the paces – one – two –three – and then a shot rings out, is utterly chilling. Then the simple words “Mort” to signify the death of his opponent and the end of act two. It doesn’t get much more somber, and of course Pushkin, (on whose poem the opera is based) wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs in describing the lot of the average Russian in the days of the Tsar. But still, it is a wonderfully morbid piece, and quite suitable for melancholy, cold evenings. 


Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” promises much – gallant young men gambling, a love tryst and ghostly apparitions – and although is has been resurrected on the international stages, I found the end rather disjointed, as as a stage piece somewhat incoherent. Too many scene changes in the final third of the opera make it erractic, and although the story itself is sound – and another moral play on the wickedness of greed – it doesn’t quite, for me, hang together as well as Eugene Onegin. Still, the singing is thrilling, and the premise alone make it well worth catching. 

Better for me was Mazeppa, the (again tragic) story of a Ukrainian Prince who falls in with, and then out of favor with Peter the Great. Based on a true historical tale, again in true Russian style it is full of morbid intrigue, capital punishments and casting out into wildernesses. Terrible stuff, really, and just the job when it’s blowing half a gale outside, and you’ve a bottle of Stolichnaya to hand. Plus the costumes are fantastic. 

Tchaikovsky wrote eleven operas, and although some are rather difficult to come by nowadays, I shall certainly be looking out for them.   

War & Peace

All of which lead, rather seamlessly, to Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. It’s been years since I read the book, which courtesy of a deadly dull English teacher, I hated. However, oft quoted as “the greatest story ever written”, I cheated and plumped for the two film versions I could find rather than the book itself. We were well rewarded. First up came the Hollywood version, a 1956 version featuring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, directed by the American King Vidor. This is a three and a half hour Hollywood epic, and although it is a little disconcerting to hear the American nasal whine forced upon Russian characters, the film came off, and I enjoyed it. But even that pales in comparison with the version filmed by Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk, released in 1968, having taken seven years to complete, and lasting over seven hours. “Epic” doesn’t begin to describe it, and it took us four days to finish. However, it is a truly masterful spectacle, and the misery of Napolean’s troops retreating is shockingly realistic. Deservedly, it won an Oscar, and it is doubtful whether such a film could even be made today. The cost would run into billions. 

Ice Festivals  

Ice Festival

No Russian winter is of course complete without some Russian architecture, and Meggie and I headed north, to Harbin, to get in some skiing at Yabuli, see the Harbin Ice Festival and collect some Russian antiques. Harbin is the capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, on the banks of the Songhua River, but was developed by the Russians just after the Russian Revolution. Russian architects moved en masse to what was little more than a river fishing village and developed it as a trading hub, ideally located between Siberia and connections to Moscow, and the promise of potentially huge markets in China. (things don’t change much). Consequently, much of Harbin’s city center is still charmingly Russian is architectural style, and it remains, in the winter, one of my favorite destinations. The attraction is St. Sophia’s Cathedral, but several cafes and old restaurants (such as Tatos and the Hua Mei) on the cobbled, pedestrianised main street are well worth looking out for. 

Yabuli skiing is a bit expensive for what it is, but we enjoyed a couple of days on the slopes and it’s always good to have a challenge – Yabuli’s being that it was about -20 and the snow ices over, making trails fast, so you have to dig in a bit. It’s northerly here of course, so the sun tends to lose what heat it has about 3:30pm, and the chill factor increases. Still, it was fun, and as a tip, for evening dinner, it’s well worth leaving the confines of your hotel and wandering back down the resorts main road for about 15 minutes. Because there, tucked into a natural windbreak, is a red lanterned local Chinese restaurant, who do a great job with local fare, including pheasant, grouse, and homemade pasta and noodles. 

As for the Ice Festival, I’ve been several times to this, and I can remember when it used to be held on the Songhua River itself. The techniques though for creating 15 storey ice pagodas and massive castles have come a long way since then, and nowadays its located over on solid ground at Sun Island, which means either a taxi and over the bridge, or an hour long quick march across the Songhua’s frozen surface. It’s best visited at night, when the embedded neon lights are switched on. It is truly spectacular, and really is a world class event. But – wrap up warm. The ambient temperature in the evening can drop to -25, and that can start to become painfully frigid. However, the structures are amazing, and the kids love it. There’s even an ice theatre, with Russian artistes, acrobats and ballet on show. A mug of hot chocolate afterwards in your hotel never tasted better.          

Russian Antiques

The Russians left Harbin shortly after the onset of WW2, and it was occupied for a time by the Japanese. With the war over, Harbin resumed it’s Chinese soveriegnty, after nearly 70 years of Russian development and cultural influence. Russian antiques of the period can still be purchased (we found an interesting market just across the road from the Gloria Plaza Hotel), and we picked up several dusty silver tableware pieces, probably stolen from hotels during the cultural revolution, which came up really well with a bit of elbow grease when repatriated to Beijing. Also, several bronze statues of various angelic and mythological beings were purloined, together with an inscribed, and very heavy bronze of a lion attacking a snake, which I suspect has Russian Orthodox Church symbolism. With that, and the acquisition of several bottles of imported vodka and some smoked sturgeon, our Russian winter was rather fittingly complete, and I think we’ll follow a similar theme next year.