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May 2019
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2002-05-23 Singing my way up the Volga

A few years back, in between two Scottish Opera contracts, I had a couple of weeks off in which I was offered to sing on a cruise up the Volga. The deal was to perform a recital, two performances of "Eugene Onegin", and join the cruise for the remainder.


They say the best way to see Russia is on a Volga cruise, so it didnt take much persuasion to get me on to that flight to St. Petersburg on what was to become a trip of a lifetime.

We joined the Lev Tolstoy ship and were welcomed with a piece of rather horrid salted bread and a glass of vodka, followed by some Russian entertainment featuring virtuoso balalaika playing.

We remained in St. Petersburg for two days and were shown some of its breathtaking highlights: the splendour of the Hermitage and Winter Palace, the citys network of canals, the colourful Church of Stained Blood with the famous Russian onion domes and amazing icons, Nevsky Prospekt (the citys answer to OConnell Street), and the church with the tall golden spire which is the last resting-place of poor Tsar Nicholas and his family.

We set sail up the Neva - now joined to the Volga - having given one of the performances of Onegin. For me to sing Lensky (the leading tenor role) in a Russian opera in Russia was totally overwhelming if a little surreal.

The next day we stopped at Irma, a typical little Russian rural village not on any map. The few inhabitants depend on the ships visits for their income, and they actually open their houses to these nosey tourists.

Dressed in their peasant outfits, we were supplied with Russian tea, blini (pancakes) and vodka. I found it strange invading their kitchens, but they were genuinely pleased to see us and our cash!

Then we sailed past two days worth of forests through the two largest freshwater lakes in Europe, Lakes Ladoga and Onega, on to the tiny enclave of Kizhi, which even at the height of Summer can be cut off by ice and snow.

A little wooden onion-domed monastery with various other houses and windmills all strangely made without the use of nails made this World Heritage site the highlight of the whole trip for me!

Hundreds of miles from anywhere, we left Kizhi, and that night witnessed a white night (no darkness). I have a photo taken at 2am but of course no one believes it is 2am. I believe me.

Then on to the cities of Yaroslavl and Kostroma, both stuck in a communist time-warp. I was suddenly in 1950s Russia, and I didnt like it much. I bought a plastic carrier-bag in Kostroma from a little head-scarved wisened lady.

I gave her an extra few roubles, and tears streamed down her face as she prayed for me and my family. Yaroslavl seemed slightly better off.There we witnessed a live performance of a male quartet singing Russian Orthodox music a capella in the crypt of a stunning church full of icons.

On to Uglich, home of Boris Godunov, more onion domes, and yes, you guessed it, icons. By now, I was a little iconed-out!

En route to Moscow through the many vast Volga locks, we witnessed a few of the disturbing imprints left over from the Stalinist era. A beautiful cathedral spire rose from the river, a reminder of the decision by that vile dictator to flood many villages in order to make his waterway from Moscow to the Baltic.

A scuba-divers dream, but otherwise, an eery picture. People forget however bad Hitler was, and he was bad, Stalin was even worse!

Moscow is awe-inspiring: Red Square with Saint Basils and its multi-coloured onion-domes, the Kremlin, the Armoury, Gum department store, and the beautifully ornate metro stations are only the tip of the iceberg.

On a more negative note, Russian cuisine leaves a lot to be desired - cabbage soup, carrot cutlets,disgusting desserts etc. The level of homelessness is worse than London even!

An old Russian beggar in a gutter decorated with countless war medals, a reminder that hed fought with the Allies and won? On several German trips I have seen some of the losers of that war with their big houses, pools, BMWs. It doesnt seem to add up, does it?