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Murder and Melodies, Russian Style

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/15/2008 -  
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar’s Bride (Concert version)
Olga Borodina (Lyubasha), Olga Makarina (Marfa), Yeghishe Manucharyan (Lykov), Alexy Markov (Graznoi), John Eastelin (Bomeli), Mzia Nioradze (Dunyasha) John Easterlin (Yelisei Bomelii), Constantine Stepanov (A Young Boy), Christin-Marie Hill (Pretrovna), Christophoros Stamboglia (Sobakin), Meagan Miller (Donna Ivanova Saburova), Rosalie Sulliban (Sennaya), Michael Anthony McGee (The Tsar’s Valet)
West Point Cadet Glee Club, Constance Chase (Director), Alumni of the Yale Russian Chorus, Denis Mickiewicz (Director), Western Connecticut State University Opera Ensemble, Dr Margaret Astrup (Director), The Opera Orchestra of New York, Eve Queler (Conductor)

(© Steve Sherman)

What an intriguing opera Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote at the height of his career. While Rimsky was a scholarly pedagogue as a person, he never let his learning interfere with his fantasy and love of Russian music, nor did he over-reach his genius as did his colleague Mussorgsky. But in The Tsar’s Bride, he created something of a hybrid. It is purely Russian in its story—slow poisonings, glorious wedding scenes, honors to Tsar Ivan the Terrible—but Rimsky wanted to let the inner Donizetti come out of him at the same time, with a series of near bel-canto arias, a sextet or two (hardly as good as Donizetti) and even an extended Mad Scene for our heroine in the last act, which is quite a spectacular showpiece.

True, this opera calls for massive staging, with street-fights, palaces, marches, dancing, and of course the most dramatic scenes of poisonings and even the appearance of Tsar Ivan the Terrible himself. (Though the Tsar doesn’t speak: he only glares and stares). That massive staging, alas was nowhere part of this concert version, led by the very estimable Eve Queler. Nor, with one exception, did any of the cast show much dramatic ability.

That aside, though, it was a splendid production indeed for voices, orchestra and chorus. And most of all, for the composer.

Outside of the well-known Slava tune, a paean to the Tsar, little of the music is sung outside Russia, yet some of the arias are worthy of genius. A show aria by the wicked Lykov sung with virtually no orchestra, a beautiful aria by Marfa at the beginning of Act II, hopak-like choruses, and sizeable arias by almost everybody in the cast. Nor does this include Marfa’s Mad Scene, modeled obviously upon Lucia, even bringing back arias from the early acts, and a duet with clarinet (instead of Donizetti’s flute).

The story may seem hackneyed, but was quite clear in this production (outside of English subtitles which were frequently spasmodic). Basically, Marfa and Lykov are in love. But the wicked Graznoi is about to give up on elderly mistress, Lyubasha. Graznoi asks a pharmacist to make a love potion for Marfa, but Lyubasha implores the pharmacist to concoct a s-l-ow-poison, which will be substituted and which will make Marfa first ugly, then dead.

Add to this Ivan the Terrible who also falls in love with Marfa, along with various singing servants, fathers, mothers and enough relatives and friends to stock a Dostoyevsky novel. The chorus represents street-gangsters, soldiers, nobles and others.

And how did this all work out? Maestro Queler knows her Central European opera as well as anybody today. While she and the Opera Orchestra of New York give predominantly Italian rarities, she has conducted much Janácek Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. The result was her very large orchestra was kept moving throughout this fairly long opera. The overtures to the First, Third and Fourth acts were done with great Slavic style: the trombones and horns were dark and deep, the strings played hard on their bows. Perhaps these were old-fashioned pre-Gergiev sounds, but they succeeded.

The two leading ladies were so splendid that one wished, almost prayed that they could show their dramatic strengths in a staging. Mezzo Olga Borodina is already reputed as the Lybasha in opera today. Her balladic first song was a crowd-pleaser, but when she begs for her lover not to turn her aside, that rich mezzo soared to tragic heights.

Olga Makarina as the innocent Marfa would probably be remembered for her Mad Scene, but Rimsky may have had a grudge against the first soprano who played the part, since all the arias are the topmost high high register. No preparation, no athletic reaching, simply a voice near the top of the staff. The challenge was met with ease.

Personally, my favorite was Meagen Miller, the mother of Marfa’s friend (it gets quite complicated), who actually showed character. The part is small, but Ms. Miller thought this was staged opera, for she showed liveliness, vivacity, and good humor. The others, no matter how well they sang, never came close to showing the poisoning, the appearance of the Tsar or other important moments.

Of the men, Alexy Markov was wicked, commanding, charismatic and a virtual Iago in wickedness. Granted, all the poisonings and murder are basically because he wants to have a Trophy Wife, but he made it sound quite plausible. The real lover, Yeghishe Manucharyan, had an Italian-style aria that was quite appealing, but it was Marfa’s father, played by Christophoros Stamboglia, who had a powerful voice and powerful personality.

All the others in this large cast had good voices, they all had decent solos, and they made the opera sometimes ring with great music. The choruses sung with fervor at time, patriotic songs at others. For this was a mainly delicious opera, with Rimsky orchestral color, colorful characters and the character of an opera which still demands staging to reach its most majestic effects.

Eve Queler’s website

Harry Rolnick



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