Maria Nikolaevna Kuznetsova (1880 – April 25, 1966) (Russian: Мария Николаевна Кузнецова, also spelled Maria Kuznetsova-Benois, Ukrainian: Марія Миколаївна Кузнєцова), was a famous 20th century opera singer and dancer first in the Russian Empire and then in emigration.
Prior to the Revolution, Kuznetsova was one of the most celebrated opera singers in Imperial Russia, having worked with Richard Strauss, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Jules Massenet. She was frequently paired with Feodor Chaliapin. After leaving Russia in 1917, Kuznetsova continued to perform for another thirty years abroad before retiring.
Kuznetsova was born in 1880, in Odessa, Ukraine, the daughter of portraitist Nikolai Kuznetsov. Kuznetsova's mother was descended from a distinguished family of scientists and intellectuals of Romanian and Russo-Jewish descent.
Her maternal grandmother, Emilia (Nevakhovich) Metchnikoff, was the daughter of Lev Nevakhovich (1776-1831), a Russo-Jewish author, translator, and founder of the Haskalah movement in Russia. Emilia married a Guards officer, Ilya Metchnikoff, and had two sons; the Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist Élie Metchnikoff and the sociologist Lev Metchnikoff.
Kuznetsova's great-uncles Mikhail and Aleksandr Nevakhovich also had successful careers. Mikhail was a cartoonist and founder of Russia's first satirical magazine, Mish-Mash (Eralash). Aleksandr was a playwright and served as repertory director of Imperial Theaters in Saint Petersburg during the reign of Nicholas I.
Early life and career
Kuznetsova initially studied ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, but abandoned dancing to study music with the baritone Joachim Tartakov. Kuznetsova was a lyrical soprano with a clear and beautiful singing voice. She also possessed notable talent as an actress. Igor Stravinsky described her as "very appetizing to look at as well as to hear".
She initially debuted at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 1904. Kuznetsova debuted for a second time in 1905 at the Mariinsky Theatre as Marguérite in Charles Gounod's Faust. One night, not long after her Mariinsky debut, a dispute erupted in the theater's lobby between students and army officers while Kuznetsova was singing the role of Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin. Before panic ensued, an unfazed Kuznetsova interrupted the performance, and she then quickly calmed the crowd by leading everyone in a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem God Save The Tsar!.
She remained at the Mariinsky as soloist for twelve years until the Revolution in 1917. During her lengthy career, Kuznetsova originated several roles including Fevroniya in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, the title role in Massenet's Cléopâtre, Woglinde in the first Russian production of Wagner's Das Rheingold and Fausta in another Massenet creation, Roma. Other signature roles included Oksana in Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki, Thaïs in Massenet's Thaïs, Violetta in Verdi's La traviata, The Snow Maiden in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, Mimi in Puccini's La bohème, Antonida in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, Lyudmila in Ruslan and Ludmila and Tamara in Anton Rubinstein's The Demon.
Kuznetsova, eventually, developed a sizable following abroad; making her Paris Opera debut in 1908 and her London debut at Covent Garden in 1909. During this period, she appeared in Emmanuel Chabrier's Gwendoline (1910) and Jules Massenet's Roma (1912). In 1916, Kuznetsova made her American debut, performing in New York and Chicago. In New York she caused a sensation, performing with the Manhattan Opera Company in the first American production of Cleopatre.
The Ballets Russes
With the help of her friend, the artist and designer Léon Bakst, Kuznetsova won the role of Potiphar's wife in Richard Strauss's ballet La Légende de Joseph (or Josephslegende) in 1914. The production included a veritable who's who of the Edwardian art world. It was produced by Diaghilev, composed and conducted by Strauss, choreographed by Michel Fokine, designed by Bakst and José Maria Sert, while the lead was danced by Léonide Massine.
It was an important role, and she was certainly in good company, but they were held to a punishing schedule with little time to rehearse. To make matters worse, Strauss was in a foul mood because his lover, Ida Rubinstein, who was to have danced Lydia Sokolova's role, had abruptly abandoned the project. Furthermore, Strauss abhorred working with French musicians, and was constantly at daggers drawn with the orchestra. Diaghilev, meanwhile, had not yet recovered from Vaslav Nijinsky's departure the previous year from the Ballets Russes.
- PARIS, May 14 - At the Opera tonight the Russian ballet season opened with the premiere of Richard Strauss's "The Legend of St. Joseph."...
- The part of Joseph was excellently performed by a young member of the Moscow "Artists Theatre", Leonide Miassine, who joined M. Diaghilew's ballet company for this purpose. Mme Kousnetzoff abandoned singing for the time being to impersonate Potiphar's wife ...
- A crowded house was evidently highly pleased.
The most memorable thing about the production was said to be Sert's luxurious Venetian themed sets and Bakst's costumes. Sokolova recalled Kuznetsova's costume as being particularly inspired:
- She moved about on high gilded clogs, attended by servants, two of whom had a couple of honey-coloured wolfhounds on white leads ...
In addition to trying her hand at ballet, Kuznetsova performed in several operas that season. In one memorable performance she joined the celebrated Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in a production of Borodin's Prince Igor, choreographed by Fokine, and staged at Drury Lane on June 8, 1914.
Life in exile
After the Revolution in 1917, Kuznetsova fled Russia, making a suitably dramatic escape dressed as a cabin boy and hidden inside a steamer trunk aboard a ship headed for Sweden. Her first performance in exile was with the Stockholm Opera in 1919.
Kuznetsova's other performances during the 1920s were of a more practical and less philanthropic nature. She organized private concerts and recitals where she would sing Russian and Spanish folk music, Gypsy music, and opera. At these recitals she would often perform Spanish folk dances and Flamenco after singing. In addition to these private performances, Kuznetsova worked as a soloist at Covent Garden, the Copenhagen Opera House, and other theaters and opera houses throughout Europe. She founded the Theatre of Miniatures with Léon Bakst in 1922, where, for a very brief time, she performed.
In 1927, with the help of the Ukrainian baritone Mikhail Karakash and his wife Elizaveta Popova, and of the Count Alexis Ceretelli, Kuznetsova founded the Opéra Russe à Paris. The Opéra Russe staged a number of ballets and operas in London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, and as far afield as Buenos Aires, and Japan, between 1927 and 1933. She also concerted in Shanghai in May 1935.
Kuznetsova gave fewer performances after 1933, but as late as 1947 her name appeared on the program of a choreographic competition held in Copenhagen, hosted by Rolf de Maré. Her contribution to the event was described quite simply: "Songs and dances of Spain, by Maria Kousnetzoff and a flamenco group."
Personal life and death
After the death of Benois, Kuznetsova wed Jules Massenet's nephew, the banker and industrialist Alfred Massenet. Alfred had worked for a time in the Russian Empire, prior to the Revolution, as the president of the Société d'Industrie Minière de Chagali-Heliar, a French copper mining company headquartered in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Kuznetsova's last years were spent in poverty; she lived in one room in a small hotel off the Champs Elysees, abandoned by her son Mikhael and her former colleagues and friends. Kuznetsova's sole companion was her dresser Olga and she supported herself by giving lessons in singing and acting. Olga used to recount how Chaliapin died in Kuznetsova's arms, against the wishes of his wife.
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