By Bella Brover-Lubovsky

Catherine the Great (1729–96), Empress of All the Russias, was neither a devoted music lover nor a musical connoisseur. However, she assigned exceptional importance to dramatic performances that extolled her reign and policies, with a particular passion for spectacles based on her own literary production. Among these, Catherine especially favored the grandiose pageant Nachal’noe upravlenie Olega (The Early Reign of Oleg), based on one of her three historical plays elaborating on events from the history of ancient Rus. The music for Oleg, furnished collaboratively by composers from Catherine’s court, features choruses, instrumental entr’actes, and a melodrama based on a scene from Euripides’s Alceste. Staged during the Second Russo-Turkish War (1787–91) at both the Hermitage court theater and the public Kamenny Theater, the play praised Catherine as a worthy successor to one of the greatest early sovereigns of Rus. Its performance involved 800 persons in total: a variety of native and foreign actors and musicians, the court chapel singers, and extras from three military regiments.

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