Royal Opera premières are relatively rare events. Anna Nicole may have caused a stir at Covent Garden recently, but a lesser-trumpeted event was the first performance – admittedly over a century after its composition – of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride. Singing the role of Marfa was former Jette Parker Young Artist Marina Poplavskaya, with whom I caught up this week to discuss the production. Our conversation also discussed all things Verdi and her development as an artist.
These are the first performances of The Tsar’s Bride here, yet in Russia it’s a repertory piece. Why do you think it’s taken so long to be taken up at Covent Garden?
It’s a fantastic piece. You can imagine what could be done when put together with a real sense of understanding. Paul Curran [director] has said that, in his opinion, the Iron Curtain opened up the wider musical traditions between the East and West. In Russia, they’ve reopened a whole world of western music where, up until then, there had been mutual ignorance (on both sides), so this could explain why it hadn’t been done here before.
I was given the choice between this and The Tsarina’s Slippers [performed two years ago] but I chose The Tsar’s Bride because Marfa is my signature role, one on which I’d worked with Galina Pavlovna Vishnevskaya, from whom I learnt about the Russian character and how not to ‘sing’ the role. The role roots me to my childhood, to who I dreamt to be.
Our composers travelled a lot, and they were always interested (and they still are) in the world’s culture; we absorb everything like a sponge. But Rimsky-Korsakov is not Verdi with vodka! Rimsky took certain harmonies, because each harmony has a colour, for the musical language, like Monet finding his own colours to express his painting; Rimsky took different expressions just as other composers did. His operas have everything to do with the voice accompanied by the orchestra, but they speak the same language, so what is established in the orchestra, we continue telling the story with the voice. That’s why it’s important to understand that Russian operas are not for singing… they are for acting! It is grand dramatic theatre.
I think those people who don’t know Rimsky’s operas would have been quite surprised. If they only know orchestral showpieces like Scheherazade, they might be expecting something quite different, yet he’s incredibly sympathetic to the voice. It’s almost like Tchaikovsky in places, particularly Maria’s lullaby at the end of Mazeppa. In Act IV, is it really a mad scene for Marfa?
No, it is not. It’s just to show how strong her spirit is and it draws her back to the land where she was born, where she found all her happiness and love. I think every human being has that place; you remember sitting on your grandfather’s lap. It’s the best place on earth. I’m sure that in the most dramatic moments of your life, your mind just turns back and you fly there. In Act IV, Marfa’s not mistaking Gryaznoy for Ivan. She doesn’t want to face reality, so she denounces it as a dream, one which she wants to break. For her, this loss of reality comes from Act III when she’s suddenly pronounced as the Tsar’s bride. Until that last moment, everyone thinks that it’s Dunyasha who’s going to be chosen.
The contemporary setting makes for a very interesting production. Do you recognise the Moscow that Paul Curran has depicted here?
I recognised a lot of characters… from different regions of Russia. I do not recognise my Moscow, but then, the opera is never set in Moscow. The real Marfa was married to Ivan at Aleksandrovska Sloboda and she died there two weeks after, so the real story was never set in Moscow. The most beautiful nature and the most beautiful traditions and Russian songs came from that district. Everyone speaks of Moscow, but we are not in Moscow. I think the way that Paul Curran has worked with the characters and bending the plot has worked really well.
The ‘Tsar’ who appears in Act II, who is he supposed to be in this production?
He is the cause of everything. We only see a glimpse of him. We are supposed to see none of it, because by ancient Russian tradition you protect your saints and the tsar is a saint.
Is he meant to represent Putin?!
He’s not meant to look like Putin – he could look like anyone. He could look like Gergiev, anyone who is a man in power who is a proper ruler. [she pauses] Perhaps not like the Mayor of London…
Maybe in ‘Boris Godunov’! [laughing]
How different is this production to others you’ve done in Russia?
We had very beautiful sets for The Tsar’s Bride because we love to be reminded of our history, but we don’t like it when it comes too close or in your face! Then it gets too uncomfortable for Russian people.
We then moved on to discuss Verdi, a composer of central importance to Poplavskaya, and especially the roles of Elisabetta, seen here and in New York in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Don Carlo, and Violetta, which Marina has performed in Amsterdam and New York and in which she’ll perform here next season.
How important is Verdi to you?
I must start by praising Tony Pappano for his vocal knowledge because he was the one who discovered that I am good for Verdi (and Maestro Muti agreed with him). I’d never sung Verdi. I’d sung Italian arias, of course – Cherubini and Baroque arias – but I had never considered myself as a Verdi soprano. Now I’ve discovered, thanks to Tony and other maestri, who’ve trusted me in these roles, that it’s such a colourful world and the more I sing Verdi, the more I develop and my voice develops, the more I find for my characterization. Verdi is a fundamental base for a singer, to become a supreme singer in technique. It’s like a school of singing.
Elisabetta is an incredibly hard role to play. She’s encaged until the last act duet. During “Tu che le vanità”, I’m liberated (like a Libera me for the soul) because after that, I don’t care what will happen (to me), I am not afraid to shout of my love for Carlo, I’ve sent Carlo away to save his life [or so she thinks].
Discussing other roles in the opera, it’s obvious that Poplavskaya has studied all of them and considered them deeply. We agreed that the central character of the opera is actually Philip II…
Philip is troubled that he can never become as great as his father [Carlos V] who overshadows him. He hates it. At the Auto-da-fé, with his first words to the crowd (like Boris – you can compare those two grand operas) he remembers his old father and says by the will of God I put this crown on my head; I always want to look at Ferruccio with pity at that moment because he so wants to be a great king.
So he has this difficult relationship with his father, but also he therefore has this difficult relationship with his son, Carlos.
Exactly. I think it’s brilliant when someone in the staging will finally acknowledge that we are all in the shade – the opera is not about Carlo, it’s about Philip and Carlo V. He wants to become greater than his father, but Don Carlo has to tell his father that he’s forgotten about his people. That’s where Posa steps in.
As Elisabetta, why do I say yes to marrying the king? Whether I marry the father or the son, it makes no difference. So why do I say ‘yes’? Because it’s my duty. But she has this acceptance of life – Marfa has it too – she accepts. Violetta doesn’t have it. She would never accept it. She’s an ultimate woman. I will build on this next year when I am singing it here. I am studying the history of the greatest actresses – Maria Callas, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich – to prepare for the production. Although Verdi dedicated the opera to his situation, his life, he basically built a monument to what it is to be a woman and I think I would love to build more than just one Violetta.
The production here is very famous – a Royal Opera signature piece – it’ll be your first time you’ve performed it…
…but not the first time I’ve watched it. I’ve seen all versions with all actresses since it was built.
Do you take anything from what they do on stage?
Yes. I do not copy, but I try to understand what the motivation was for each move, and then I find it in myself and bring something from what I have in my past and from what I’ve studied, what has stayed in my heart.. and I just bring it and give it my twist.
Which sopranos do you hold up as your role models in Verdi?
Ponselle, Caniglia, Albanese, Callas, Tebaldi – I take examples from living sopranos too.
What other Verdi roles would you want to explore?
Luisa Miller, Amalia in I masnadieri, Giovanna d’Arco. I’m happy I will be doing Hélène in Les vêpres siciliennes here at Covent Garden. I love Leonora in Il trovatore, which is my favourite role. I’m also singing Lucrezia in I due Foscari.
This summer at the Proms, you’re singing in the Verdi Requiem. Last year was your first time at the Proms [in Simon Boccanegra], what was that like?
I’d heard of the Proms, I’d seen it on television, but I’d never been to the Royal Albert Hall before. When I first stepped onto that stage, my voice went dry. It needed a little bit more than one day for the concert rehearsal for someone who has never sung there. It’s a difficult acoustic and difficult for the performer because where I sang my aria from, on that bench, was most difficult. I could not hear the harp, the flutes were coming back to me via an odd direction. I spent about two hours drinking water in my dressing room just to calm down. But I can’t wait to sing the Requiem there this year.
I later notice Marina clutching the score of Britten’s War Requiem which she is due to sing in Florence during the Maggio Musicale under Semyon Bychkov, for whom she has much praise. The Britten was, of course, another important part of Vishnevskaya repertoire.
You were on the Young Artists Programme here. How well did that prepare you for the life of an international opera singer?
I wish that the programme could be five years perhaps, not two. The singers who come here are not students, it’s not a finishing school, but they’re upcoming artists who have already established themselves. The programme is to give them a lift for their international career. We were given a lot of physical exercise before the singing; for a year I was battling not to be in a gym or stretching. Singing is a completely different exercise to being in the gym, it’s a different energy. There were difficult moments, but Siri Fischer Hansen helped me to understand how to best use my remaining time on the programme. It really helped me studying languages. When I came here I did not speak English and I could only understand a little Italian. It ended up very well for me and they support their past members well. Tony Pappano helped me find new repertoire. Pappano is a nuclear engine who makes this opera house run. It’s the kind of energy which produces itself. Also, Peter Katona [casting director] and my agent helped me. I’m lucky to have met my agent because he was a singer himself and he knows voices. He’s a fanatic in the good sense of the word. I came here as a high coloratura soprano singing Donizetti and Bellini and now I’m a Verdi soprano!
Are there any roles you’re being offered that you’d say no to at the moment?
Salome, Cio-Cio-San, Tosca. People think “she sang Elisabetta, she must do Tosca”. No. ‘Don Carlo’ is a romantic opera. We need to educate people!
With so many exciting roles ahead, we are fortunate that the Royal Opera has engaged Marina for a number of things in the coming season. In addition to her role debut here in La Traviata, she will also feature in the Plácido Domingo Gala in October, as well as in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims featuring vocal athletics from past and current Jette Parker artists just before the flame is lit for the 2012 Olympics.
This interview originally appeared on Opera Britannia.