"O Sole Mio": The Role of Italian Song in Soviet High and Popular Culture

Olga Zaslavsky, Independent Scholar

This presentation will deal with the fascination for Italian art songs and Neapolitan popular songs in the Soviet period from 1930s until the beginning of the 1950s. I plan to look at a few Russian performers who sang Italian songs mostly in Russian during that period, and at their audiences.

A few of those Russian performers, such as Sergej Lemeshev in the 1930s and 1940s, Mixail Aleksandrovich in the 1940s, and Konstantin Laptev at the beginning of the 1950s have recorded Italian songs in Russian that became best-selling records. Occasionally, different performers used different Russian adaptations of the same Italian song. Such was the case with Boris Geft and Mixail Aleksandrovich, who both sang "Non ti scordar di me / Ne zabyvaj menja" by E. Curtis in Russian opting for two different Russian adaptations of a single text.

Of much interest is the story of a song, entitled "Palomma è notte" ("Nochnaja babochka"). This song, originally performed in Italian by a Russian singer Davydov, was performed in the 1940s by another singer, Bejbutov, with a Russian adaptation devoted to Georgian life. The Russian text, at that point, had nothing to do with its Italian original; it glorified Georgian nature and the Georgian patriarchal way of life. Considering that Georgian culture was Stalin's own, this is a fascinating moment in the Soviet adaptation of Italian song legacy.

In my analysis, I would like to examine how and why the Russian cultural establishment sponsored the proliferation of Italian Song in the Soviet song production during the Stalin period. Why also, I would like to ask, did the interest in performing Italian songs in Russian vanish with the end of Stalin's regime?

Some of those questions might lead to obvious answers: the thaw period allowed audiences to enjoy original Italian performers and, thus, the need for Russian performers singing Russian versions of Italian songs was becoming obsolete. Yet, that twenty-year period, that opened the eyes of Soviet audiences to the songs of a rich musical western culture and even made some of those songs Russia's own, raises some fascinating issues in Russian cultural history.