Christus, Sacred opera in seven scenes (Vocal score with German libretto)
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In the 1880s, toward the end of his long and eventful career, Anton Rubinstein could look back on a lifetime of sterling successes. He was universally acclaimed as one of the greatest pianists of the age, with a repertoire extending from William Byrd to the latest piano works of his student Tchaikovsky. He had single-handedly forged the institutional superstructure of Russia’s music life by founding and directing the Russian Musical Society (now the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. And he had produced a huge body of music that made him, in the eyes of the world, the leading composer in Russia. But one dream continued to elude him: the creation of a new genre to which he gave the name “sacred opera.”
Rubinstein’s ambitions for the new genre were anything but modest. He envisioned it on a scale comparable to Bayreuth: a new type of theater building would have to be erected in which the stage area would reflect the “tripartite” nature of the material (Heaven, Hell, and Earth); singers would have to be specially trained to project the gravitas essential to their biblical roles; choristers would need to sing long fugues from memory; special rules of behavior would be required of the audience. More importantly, a new repertoire would have to be created: the works of Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn, adapted for the stage, would provide basic staples to get the genre started, but, with the sole exception of Méhul’s Joseph (1807), Rubinstein could think of no modern works suitable for the kind of theater he had in mind. What he wanted was a “church of art” in which biblical subjects would be interpreted in music, not for the purpose of proselytizing or conveying religious dogma, but to inculcate the loftiest religious sentiments in the spectators – a sort of superior Oberammergau Passion Play without, as he put it, its “more than naive music.”
By the time Rubinstein came to publish these ideas, in Joseph Lewinsky’s Vor den Coulissen (Berlin, 1882), he had been nourishing such plans for a quarter of a century and had sounded out the cultural capitals of Europe (Berlin, Paris, London, Weimar) in the hope of finding a sponsor to underwrite his vision, as King Ludwig had done for Wagner. Convinced that the new genre would also turn a large profit, he even probed the United States in the hope of finding a willing business entrepreneur for his venture. All to no avail: too entrenched was the aversion to seeing biblical subjects depicted on stage, unless, as in Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah (1877), they were reworked to serve as conventional opera librettos. Precisely that was what he sought to avoid.
By the time of his 1882 article Rubinstein had already produced two candidates for the new genre: Das verlorene Paradies after Milton’s Paradise Lost (first set as an oratorio in 1855-56 and revised for stage performance in 1875), and Der Thurmbau zu Babel (The Tower of Babel, 1870), whose phenomenal success in Germany was mainly confined, however, to concert performances. Neither work succeeded in the theater. But the grand vision would not let him rest, and in his 1882 article he announced that he would write sacred operas on the story of Cain and Abel, Moses, The Song of Songs, and the life of Christ, whether or not his utopian theater ever materialized. The end of his life was thus occupied with his “sacred operas” Sulamith (1882-83), Moses, op. 112 (1887-89), and finally Christus, op. 117 (1887-93), his last large-scale composition and, in his opinion, the greatest work he ever created. (The sacred opera Cain was left unfinished at his death.) To this series must be added, for the sake of completeness, Die Maccabäer (The Maccabees, 1877), a conventional three-act opera which, though not conceived as a sacred opera, was likewise based on a biblical subject, and at least had the advantage that it held the stage and was left uncensored on the argument that its biblical story was apocryphal. Indeed, it was the most popular of Rubinstein’s operas during his lifetime. …
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