Semyon Kotko

Noëlle MANN

Illustration by V. Levental.
Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, 1985.

Of all Prokofiev’s operas, the least documented are Semyon Kotko and Story of a Real Man, both based on momentous years of the Soviet Union. How to elevate everyday situations and people to the status of dramatic art was an on-going challenge for Prokofiev, and in these two operas he set himself the task of treating Soviet reality in dramatic and musical terms. Semyon Kotko, an honest soldier committed to Bolshevism and with a strong sense of responsibility, loyalty and filial love (not unlike Prokofiev himself), and the war hero of Real Man, might appear unconvincing today, caricatures of heroes tainted by crude patriotism, but in the late 1930s and 1940s, they symbolised the greatness of the man of the day and highlighted some of the issues of Soviet reality. The character of Alexei, the model Soviet Man, was inspired by the true story of a World War II pilot, Alexei Meresev, who, having lost both legs in a crash, nevertheless returned to duty and went on fighting. Some Western commentators view this story as grossly dramatised for propagandist reasons, and yet it is uncanningly similar to that of Britain's most famous and acclaimed airman and hero of World War II, Douglas Bader. Forced to have his legs amputated following a flying accident in 1931, Bader went on to fly again and lead a squadron till the end of the war (Paul Brickhill first recounted Bader’s story in his book, Reach for the Sky). However in today’s general opinion, both works lack the universal appeal and timelessness that traditional opera is expected to offer, which would explain partly their neglect.
     Compared to other operas by Prokofiev, these two have hardly been performed since their conception – especially The Story of a Real Man which did not reach the stage during Prokofiev’s lifetime. As a result, they are little documented – a state of affairs that has caused problems to the Prokofiev Archive in recent years. When Valery Gergiev brought the Kirov Opera to London to perform the UK première of Semyon Kotko in the summer of 2000 (subsequently releasing a recording on Philips), the Archive was inundated with requests for documentation in English, (libretto, articles, analyses and reviews) of which there were practically none. In an attempt to remedy this sad situation, I have been actively gathering materials over the past three years. As a result, this issue of Three Oranges offers a Semyon Kotko dossier that includes up-to-date and reliable documentation: a commented discography, a comprehensive listing of first performances (1940-1999) and a fascinating Russian review of 1959 (published in English for the first time). An article by Edward Morgan, who throws new light on Semyon Kotko’s literary sources and discusses the opera’s dramatic structure, follows. This is supplemented by details on the editions of the three versions of the same story (novel, play and opera), a listing of the respective characters and a synopsis of each version. (

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