The operas Maddalena by Sergei Prokofiev and L’heure espagnole by Maurice Ravel were written in the beginning of the 20th century. However, their paths to the audiences were completely different.

The world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Maddalena in the orchestration of an English composer and Edward Downes was held on the 25th of March 1979: it was broadcast on the radio by the BBC. On the 28th of November 1981 the opera was presented on stage for the first time at Graz Opera (Austria). The recording by “Melodia” was made by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in 1986, a year later the opera was broadcast by the All-Union radio. It was then followed by the concert performance (the Moscow Musical Experimental Theatre, 1988) and the first staging in the USSR at Belarusian Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre (1989). In 1980–2000 the success of Maddalena was secured by multiple concert and stage performances, including on the stages of St Louis (USA), Helsinki, Samara, London, St Petersburg.
At the Bolshoi Theatre the premiere took place in 2021.

The composer, who passed away in 1953, might not have even assumed such a future for his unfinished work. Maddalena was an early attempt from a young Sergei Prokofiev, a student of the St Petersburg Conservatory at the time. The basis of the libretto was the play Maddalena, written in blank verse by Baroness Magda Liven-Orlova (pseudonym Baron M. Lieven). It had a noticeable resemblance to A Florentine Tragedy by Oscar Wilde. With a typically youthful excitement, having hoped for a premiere with an opera class, a choir and orchestra at the conservatory, Prokofiev wrote the clavier and orchestrated the first scene over the summer of 1911. For reasons unknown, the performance the composer had hoped for, did not materialise. Being enthusiastic about new ideas, he decided not to complete the instrumentation of the entire opera. Having made some corrections in the clavier in 1913 wishing for another performance (also failed), he abandoned Maddalena for good and never returned to it.

Having been brought to life by Edward Downes, the work of the young master happened to be worthy of standing alongside the masterpieces of musical expressionism: the operas by Richard Strauss, Béla Bartók, Erich Korngold and others. A feature that distinguished Maddalena from many of them (it can be added to its merits) is its conciseness: the duration of the opera is about an hour. However, from the first to the last second, the audience feels the utmost tension of the action. The heroine demonstrates such passion and at the same time cynical indifference towards the fates of her husband and lover, that she appears to be not a real woman but a decadent symbol of attraction to death. Regarding her husband (an artist Genaro) and her lover (an alchemist Stenio), they are seized by such passion for her that only their duel (which turned out to be the last for them both) could solve their argument. By creating this, in fact, expressionistic opera, Prokofiev, however, was perfectly rational. A precise calculation can be felt in the solidity of its form, the looped development of its music continuous blasts of expression, which leads to the culmination in the finale.

The premiere of the opera L’heure espagnole by Maurice Ravel was held on the 19th of May 1911 at the Parisian Opéra Comique. It did not remain on stage for long, although both the audience and critics were in favour of it. It found true success after the WWI. L’heure espagnole was staged at the Paris Opera and later at many other theatres, in New York, Chicago, London, Vienna, Prague and others.

The premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre was held on the 28th of October 1978. Galina Kalinina (Concepción), Arthur Eisen (Don Iñigo Gomez) and other famous artists were involved. Fuat Mansurov conducted.

L’heure espagnole became the debut in the opera genre of the composer already known at the time of work on this opera (1907–08), the author of instrumental and chamber vocal compositions. The historical background for its creation was the majestic tragic musical dramas by Wagner, and its older “contemporaries” — Salome by R. Strauss and Pelléas et Mélisande by C. Debussy. The expressionism of Salome and the symbolic polysemy of Pelléas et Mélisande which expressed vague tragic forebodings fin de siècle (end of the century, turning point), made Ravel want to write something completely different.

In contrast to the twilight aesthetics of decadence, L’heure espagnole is a realisation of a bright sunny day, which has not hint of a shadow, reflection, the passion of southern blood of which is balanced by irony. The reference point for Ravel, as he admitted, was the opera buffa genre. Moreover, the only prototype he mentioned was The Marriage by M. Mussorgsky. The heroes of the vaudeville plot were the attractive wife of the watchmaker, her three potential lovers (one of whom was lucky) and the deceived husband, who leniently keeps his eyes shut to the infidelity of his frivolous wife.

Maddalena by Sergei Prokofiev and L’heure espagnole by Maurice Ravel have never been onstage together on the same night. However, the operas-contemporaries complement each other in many ways. The swiftness of the time flow is similar in them: a rapid pulse, like a barometer, captures the anxious atmosphere of the approaching global cataclysms of the early 20th century. The driving force of the plots is a love passion of several men towards one woman, which is fuelled by southern blood (the location of the first opera is Venice, the second unfolds in Toledo). At the same time, the gloomy bloody Maddalena contrasts sharply with L’heure espagnole, a light sitcom. According to the director Vladislavs Nastavševs, this contrast is a reflection of the differences between two cultures, the Russian and French: “Where Russian see mortal passions, the French find a reason to smile and make a joke”.