Maria Nikolayevna Kuznetsova (1880 – April 25, 1966) (Russian: Мария Николаева Кузнецова, also spelled Maria Kuznetsova-Benois, Ukrainian: Марія Нiколаева Кузнецова), was a famous 20th century Russian opera singer and dancer.
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 portrait painter Nikolai Kuznetsov, and the niece of the Nobel Prize wining microbiologist Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov and sociologist Lev Ilyich Mechnikov.
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 Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 1904. Kuznetsova debuted for a second time in 1905 at the Mariinsky Theatre as Marguerite 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, Yaroslavna in Rimsky-Kosakov and Glazunov's rendition of Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor, 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, Marguerite in Faust, Antonida in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, Lyudmila in Ruslan and Ludmila and Tamara in Anton Rubinstein's The Demon.
With the help of her friend, the artist and designer Léon Bakst, Kuznetsova won the role of Potiphar's wife in the ballet La Légende de Saint 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 Richard 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.
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:
In addition to trying her hand at ballet, Kusnetsova 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.
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. She settled in Paris and soon returned to the stage.
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 and other theaters and opera houses throughout Europe, including, very briefly, at a small theater founded by Leon Bakst.
In 1927, with the help of her husband, Ukrainian baritone Mikhail Karakash, and 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, between 1927 and 1933.
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."
After the death of Nikolai 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 Societé d'Industrie Minere de Chagali-Heliar, a French copper mining company headquartered in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Maria Kuznetsova died in Paris on April 25, 1966.