Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar’s Bride *****
The Royal Opera, 14th April 2011
Kate and Wills’ won’t be the only royal wedding concerning London this month, courtesy of the Royal Opera’s much belated first production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1899 historical epic The Tsar’s Bride. It is based on Lev Mey’s story about Marfa Sobakina, daughter of a Novgorod merchant, who died shortly after her wedding to Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). Already promised in marriage to her childhood sweetheart Ivan Lykov (soppy tenor), she’s selected from a line-up of over two thousand as the Tsar’s third wife. However, events are complicated further as she’s also lusted after by Grigory Gryaznoy (baritone baddie), a henchman in the Tsar’s bodyguard, or Oprichniki, who were responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds during Ivan’s reign. Throw in Gryaznoy’s jealous ‘ex’, a dodgy German pharmacist, a love potion and poison and you have the suitably implausible ingredients of a classic opera plot. Productions are ten a rouble in Russia (it’s currently in the repertory of six Moscow companies), but it’s a rarity elsewhere.
Director Paul Curran has chosen to set the action in contemporary Moscow, where the oligarchs of the New Russia flash their cash on lavish lifestyles and where corruption is rife, policed by shady mafia types. Initially concerned about the idea of updating an historic plot, I felt it actually worked supremely well, aided by Curran’s insights into modern Russia. There are weaknesses in the opera itself – Rimsky was usually happier in setting fairy-tales, even if the plots had a satirical message aimed at political leaders of the day – but the underworld thuggery and political machinations pack more of a punch in the recognisable present than in the prettified historic past of ‘ye olde Russia’ in which the opera tends to be treated back home. Everyone’s on the make here, from the dancer who covets Lyubasha’s fur coat in Act I to the opportunist who pockets Marfa’s tiara at the end.
Act I is set in a seedy restaurant, where Gryaznoy is knocking back shots of vodka to try and forget his rejection by Marfa. His sharp-suited Oprichniki guests, including their leader Malyuta-Skuratov, are entertained by a traditional Russian chorus, recognisable to anyone who’s familiar with Boris Godunov (Rimsky and Mussorgsky shared lodgings for some time, after all). They are also treated to a trio of lap-dancers, not perhaps in the original libretto! Lyubasha, Gryaznoy’s former lover, sings a sad love song, then overhears, from behind the lavatory door, of Gryaznoy’s purchase from Bomelius of a love philtre to try and win Marfa. She determines to intervene in his plan.
We move to downtown Moscow for Act II, from where Bomelius dispenses drugs and to where the Sobakins have moved. It is here that ‘the Tsar’ sets eyes on Marfa (once he removes his shades, that is). Tsar Ivan is a silent role and the more powerful for it. I wondered if ‘Ivan Groznyi’ would be represented as Vladimir Putin (who acquired the title ‘Butcher of Grozny’), but although balding, there was no obvious attempt to depict him as such. While Marfa and Ivan are inside settling their engagement, Lyubasha tracks down Bomelius and trades her love for poison, which she intends to substitute for the powder Gryaznoy has purchased.
Kevin Knight’s set for Act III, a penthouse roof terrace, replete with swimming pool and Moscow skyline, drew applause from some sections of the audience which seemingly thought it was at the Met for the evening. It was, however, a most effective contrast to the earlier sets, especially with David Martin Jacques’ lighting. Marfa has been summoned for bridal inspection by the Tsar, along with her friend Dunyasha and several hundred others. Lykov has a nasty premonition, well founded as it turns out, but Gryaznoy feigns his support. Sobakin prepares the engagement party, bolstered by the news that it’s Dunyasha who has taken the Tsar’s eye. During the party, Gryaznoy slips the powder into Marfa’s glass of champagne, which she downs moments before it’s revealed that she is the Tsar’s chosen bride.
If the set for Act III drew applause, that for Act IV caused a sharp intake of breath for many – a golden imperial palace interior with red carpets literally dazzled the eye. The poison has taken effect and Marfa seems bewitched. Gryaznoy has framed Lykov and has had him executed. Marfa, still in bridal dress and tiara, collapses and, in a tremendous mad scene, imagines Gryaznoy is Ivan. The distraught Gryaznoy confesses his actions, after which Lyubasha arrives to admit she switched the powders, leading to a bloodbath which leaves her, Gryaznoy and Marfa all dead. No-one was seriously expecting a happy ending now, were they?
Rimsky’s music for The Tsar’s Bride is much closer to Tchaikovsky than his other operas. There are links with Tchaikovsky’s operas too, especially The Oprichnik, The Sorceress and especially Mazeppa, the latter of which ends with Maria, driven insane at the death of her lover, rocking the corpse as she sings a tender lullaby. Famed for the orchestral Scheherazade, Rimsky actually considered himself, first and foremost, an operatic composer. He always put the vocal line first and his writing is melodic and fluid in a Tchaikovskian manner, not far removed from Verdi. As in a lot of operas, it’s the baddies who have far more developed characters and it’s Gryaznoy and Lyubasha who have the most complex portraits. Marfa is, until her mad scene, something of a nonentity; a simple girl who just wants to get hitched to her man. Marina Poplavskaya takes the role of Marfa, a role she’s previously sung, with charming innocence and pure tone, particularly in her lower register. Her Act II aria where she sings about her childhood with Ivan showed fluidity in her phrasing, arching easily upwards, a touch of thinness towards the top on occasion. The revelation, however, was her Act IV ‘mad scene’, where Poplavskaya scaled down her voice to a whisper on occasion, almost speaking some lines of recitative parlando rather than singing, reflecting both Rimsky’s pianissimo marking in his score and the fragility of her character’s mental state; the Adagio section features a solo clarinet recalling the theme from her earlier aria, beautifully played here. When she opened up her voice towards the end, the sound had a golden richness to match the gilt decoration of the set.
Her true love, Ivan Lykov, is rather one dimensional, a gauche youth; you can spot him straight away in his tank top amongst all the sharp-suited henchmen – it’s a dead giveaway. The role requires a Lensky-type tenor, with lightness of touch but poetic ardour and that’s exactly what Dmytro Popov lyric tenor provided, his Act III aria gaining a particularly warm response from the audience.
The most complex character is the baritone role of Gryaznoy and Johan Reuter explored him sufficiently well to maintain some sympathy for him, despite his evil plotting. We first encounter him having just tortured a victim, to death it would seem given the way the body was carted off, immediately establishing him as a bit of a bad lad. Yet, Rimsky gives him music of great passion, a gift for any baritone (and one Dmitri Hvorostovsky has essayed, finding the higher-lying phrases coming with greater velvety ease). Gryaznoy’s fake bonhomie towards Lykov in Act III fools just about everyone and then his guilt in the final scene as his continued love for Marfa drives him to confess his crime is overwhelming. Reuter’s acting was strong, especially his shocked reaction when Marfa mistakes him for her dead lover.
The role of the scheming Lyubasha is similarly a gift for a dramatic mezzo and Ekaterina Gubanova delivered in spades. In her initial scene, she is required to sing an unaccompanied folksong which she did with the most wonderful simplicity and gorgeous tone, the audience rapt in attention. In Lyubasha’s more histrionic moments (and there are a few!), Gubanova struggled to project above the orchestra once or twice, but hers was a commanding performance.
The last time the Royal Opera staged a Rimsky-Korsakov opera was at Sadler’s Wells during their exile from Covent Garden during the renovation. The Golden Cockerel was the opera on that occasion, the cast led by Paata Burchuladze, the great Georgian bass, as King Dodon (incidentally, Curran was the Associate Director). Nearly thirteen years on, the familiar vibrato is still there and there’s now a hollow ring to his lowest notes, but it’s an instantly recognisable voice and perfect for the role of Vasily Stepanovich Sobakin, Marfa’s father. A seriously impressive bass voice belongs to Alexander Vinogradov as Malyuta-Skuratov, the chief of Oprichnik, along with bags of personality, charming on the surface, yet lethal underneath; it’s he who provides the knife for Sobakin to dispatch Gryaznoy at the close.
Minor roles included Jurgita Adamonyte’s perky Dunyasha and Elizabeth Woollett’s sometimes squally Domna Saburova, her mother. Vasily Gorshkov was the slippery Bomelius, a strident tenor in an ample body, who can’t believe his luck when Lyubasha agrees to his sordid deal in Act II.
Mark Elder has long admired this opera and his direction kept things moving well, the orchestra playing superbly; it’s not as colourful a score as The Golden Cockerel or Tsar Saltan for sure, but Rimsky does some imaginative things, such as his scoring for the Sunday morning introduction to Act II, which depicts chiming bells, but without any of the glittering percussion you would expect from the composer of the Russian Easter Festival Overture. The Overture was well paced, the tense undercurrents in the strings contrasted with a lyrical, soaring melody which is instantly memorable. The Royal Opera Chorus, plus added chorus members, sounded authentically Russian, especially the tenors, who were on top form. That’s it’s taken over a century to get The Tsar’s Bride up the aisle and onto the Covent Garden stage is a mystery. I just hope it doesn’t take as long for other Rimsky operas to join the Royal Opera’s rep.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.