In his letter to P. I. Lebedev, Prokofiev promised to keep “fragmented conversations” to a minimum, replacing them with songs and ensembles. Song snippets were also positioned in the initial plan as supporting elements. That being said, without renouncing the “songs,” Prokofiev all the same employs recitative in the most important spots—Andrei’s narrative about navigator Atamanenko and in the argument between Andrei and Kostik (the climax of the scene).
In this vein, Andrei’s vocal part in his narrative about the navigator (bars 383-430) is a tongue twister. This narrative is remarkable, too, because it is based on a theme that was evidently supposed to become a unifying one throughout the entire opera. The theme first appears in the unfinished introduction.(27) In Andrei’s arioso, it is heard in the orchestra. One of the central scenes of A Story of a Real Man—the scene of Aleksei’s persuasion by the Commissar (No. 25)—displays an analogous approach. Prokofiev likewise turns there to the leit-theme of the opera (the melody of the chorus of kolkhoz workers from Act I), heard time after time in an ever-higher register.
Among the vocal styles in Distant Seas, the “palm of victory” goes neither to recitative nor to song-arioso style. It can be said that the vocal line in the song fragments sometimes seems like declamation and, by contrast, in the sections that are declamatory by nature, the vocal inflections are smoothed out. For example, although the vocal part in Mark’s arioso (bars 286-310) is predominantly songlike at root, it nevertheless exhibits pauses and decorative inflections that are too characteristic to exclude the influence of a declamatory impulse. Recall that in A Story of a Real Man, for instance, a long-breathed chant-like melody was typical. However, there were reasons for the predominance of this type of melodic writing there, namely the emphasis on a kind of genre species “song in triple time.” If we analyse the first scene of Distant Seas from this point of view, it becomes clear why a mixture of song and declamatory writing plays a large role here. In Distant Seas, the defining genre becomes the song in 2/4 time.
Does the positioning of song as the main component of genre signify a move toward the genre of the so-called “song opera”? Obviously, Prokofiev’s thoughts and actions were moving in this direction. However, the stylistic unity of Distant Seas, produced largely due to the reliance on sources in song genres, does not in this instance entail the absolute correspondence of musical components. As an example, Andrei’s “conspiratorial” song “I know how to save Kostik” (bars 328-371) conjures up associations with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata more readily than with the Soviet song of the 1940s.
Another example is Andrei’s arioso, right after Zoya’s exit (bars 223-285). Here the associations conjured up are with classical opera, specifically with the vengeance aria. Incidentally, this arioso is one of the few where Prokofiev sets down the tempo (Allegro furioso). Naturally, the tempo of the vocal part also accelerates. While it is not a tongue twister, its articulation and inflections are reasonably complicated.
Returning to the theme of the introduction, it should be noted that in both A Story of a Real Man and Distant Seas the “main” themes are in keeping with those representative for operas of their genre: the triple-time “Song of the Oak” in A Story, and the duple theme of the introduction to Distant Seas, respectively.
The harmonic language of Distant Seas, like that of A Story, is distinguished from that of previous operas by its reduced “degree” of dissonance. And yet, this does not mean that the composer did not concern himself with harmony in these works. In A Story, a characteristic chord—an augmented triad—is present which moulds the harmonic profile of the opera. (28) In Distant Seas one can also talk about an inflectional-harmonic network. Before introducing it, here is the opening of Aleksei’s final arioso from A Story:
[Text translation—The Colonel just said “thank you” to me]
Here, as can be seen, there are no augmented triads, but there is another characteristic inflectional-harmonic feature: a minor triad with a tritone. If in A Story this remained a local detail in a single arioso, then in Distant Seas it became the equivalent of what the augmented triad was for the previous opera. The contours of the inflectional-harmonic network can be discerned at the beginning of Kostik’s arioso:
Kostik (addressing the envelope)
[Text translation—To Navigator Atamanenko]
Here the main principle—a minor triad with neighbour tones—is set out which afterwards shapes the characteristic harmony. On its own, however, the chord would hardly lay claim to the role of a characteristic harmony (29) had not Prokofiev stressed it by means of inflections in the vocal part. A melodic variant of the element in question is heard for the first time in Kostik’s rejoinder (bars 216-222):
[Text translation—Well, her. If you like her so much, damned octopus.]
The melodic tension in the chain of steps III - #IV – V is emphasised here. Later, similar inflections in one or another variant appear also in the part of Mark (bars 289-292). Other examples can be found in bars 511-512, 517-519, 522-523, 581, 596-601, 609-613. Together with the clearly expressed genre focus, this inflectional-harmonic network helps to create the unified musical style of the composition.
The conception for the opera Distant Seas demonstrates many of the characteristics present in earlier operas of Prokofiev, both on the level of plot motifs and on the level of work on the libretto. In terms of musical style, Distant Seas and A Story of a Real Man demonstrate a common approach, but not a common outcome. The composer obviously arrives at the idea of distinct approaches in terms of the genre focus of thematic writing. Together with Semyon Kotko, the two aforementioned operas form a direct line—from an opera on a Soviet plot to a Soviet song opera. If in Semyon Kotko Prokofiev refers to songlike quality [pesennost’] as such for the first time in his operatic career, then in A Story of a Real Man a generalised songlike quality takes the form of specific types of genre (a triple song in a slow tempo on the one hand and a genuine folk song on the other).
Distant Seas follows A Story in its very principle of concretising the genre of song, but the types featured here are different, corresponding to lyric-comic opera. Having prioritised the songlike-declamatory style, it is remarkable that in the main scenes (from a dramaturgical standpoint) Prokofiev resorts to recitative style in the vocal parts. The characteristics noted attest to the fact that—proclaiming his allegiance to the Soviet song opera in his letter to P. I. Lebedev—above all Prokofiev wrote music that he himself found interesting. That is why, for all the differences, parallels emerge between Distant Seas and the other operas of the 1940s, which compel us to reconsider the common principles of Prokofiev’s theatre. PREVIOUS
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27 Curiously enough, in the existent fragment of the introduction a development section begins to take shape in which the theme is heard in augmentation. Such genlargement h of a theme is characteristic of climactic fragments in the film music. In particular, Prokofiev employed this technique in his music for the film Tonya. The draft registers different stages of the theme’s development, including its culminating appearance in augmentation. (See RGALI, f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 102).
28 See N. A. Lobacheva, “Povest’ o nastoyashchem cheloveke” S. S. Prokof’yeva: 60 let spustya (Moskva: Kompozitor, 2008), 196-204.
29 Yu. N. Kholopov singles out triads with a tritone as “especially characteristic for the auditory stimulus of Prokofiev’s chordal practice as a whole, mentioning that “it is, perhaps, no less ‘Prokofievan’ than the ‘Prokofiev dominant’” (Yu. N. Kholopov, Sovremenn´ye chert´ garmonii Prokof’yeva [Moskva: Muz´ka, 1967], 38). However, calling to mind examples of Prokofiev’s triads with tritones, we first and foremost refer to major triads. The idiosyncrasy of the harmony of “Distant Seas” consists in its accent on minor triads with a tritone.