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Russian Opera with Local Roots

By Larry Clinton
“Juno and Avos” is a popular Russian-language rock opera first performed Moscow in 1981.
The opera is named after the ships Juno and Avos that constituted an expedition headed by Russian explorer Nikolai Rezanov around the turn of the 18th century. The plot is based on a true love story of Rezanov and Conchita Arguello, the teenage daughter of José Darío Argüello, the colonial governor of Spanish California.
Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov  (1764 – 1807) was a Russian nobleman and statesman who was commissioned by Czar Aleksander I as ambassador to Japan to conclude a commercial treaty.  Rezanov departed the expedition when it reached Kamchatka after visiting Japan where he was unsuccessful in his mission. Instead, he brought the Juno to San Francisco in April 1806, to help provision the struggling Russian fur-trading settlement at Sitka, Alaska.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Comandante would not allow trade with Sitka. However Rezanov soon caught the eye of fifteen-year-old Concepcion, described by one admirer as: “distinguished for her vivacity and cheerfulness, her love-inspiring and brilliant eyes and exceedingly beautiful teeth, her expressive and pleasing features, shapeliness of figure, and for a thousand other charms besides an artless natural demeanor.”
The infatuation was mutual, and the lovers spent the two weeks they had together exploring the Presidio and planning their future lives in Russia. During this period, a party of Russians and Aleuts were harpooning seals and otters on the Farallon Islands, where they had established a base camp of crude earthen huts.  Hunters and their families rotated between Fort Ross and the Farallons, depending on the size of the sea mammal herds during the hunting season.
Rezanov asked for Concepcion’s hand in marriage. Though initially concerned with the religious differences as well as the distance between California and Russia, Concepcion’s parents eventually agreed that Rezanov would return to St. Petersburg to gain consent for a mixed Russian Orthodox-Roman Catholic wedding.
(Sixteen years later, coincidentally, Sausalito founder William Richardson married Maria Antonia Martinez, daughter of a later Comandante of the Presidio.)
Attempting to cross Siberia to reach St. Petersburg, Rezanov caught pneumonia and died. Concepcion waited five years for her true love to return before learning from a Russian officer: “He is dead…His last words were of you.” The young officer returned the locket Conception had given to Rezanov.
Though her family encouraged Concepcion to marry—and she is rumored to have had many suitors—she instead joined the Dominican sisterhood in Benicia, California, where she died in 1857.
Two years ago, performances of the rock opera were scheduled in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Fort Ross, but they were cancelled when funding fell through.  Perhaps “Juno and Avos” could be on the bill if and when the City revives its Opera in the Park program.

Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov as depicted on a mural in the Presidio Interfaith Chapel.

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