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When Ivan the Terrible is Irrepressibly Terrific

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
07/12/2014 -  & July 13, 2014
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsarkaya Nevesta
Elchin Azizov (Grigory Gryaznoy), Olga Tsybulko (Malyuta Skuratov), Olga Kulchynska (Marta), Bogdan Volkov (Lykov), Marat Gali (Bomelius), Agunda Kulaeva (Lyubasha), Elena Novak, (Dunyasha), Anna Matsey (Petrovna), Vladimir Matorin (Sobakin), Irina Rubtsova (Domna Saburova)
Bolshoi Opera Chorus, Valery Borisov (Chorus Master), Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Conductor)
Produced for Lincoln Center Festival

R. Shulakov, O. Kulchinskaya (© Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theater)

”The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, but the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”
Danny Kaye, The Court Jester

Never having heard or seen this so rare opera (though apparently the most popular Rimsky-Korsakov opera in Russia), I made the serious error of reading the synopsis before seeing The Tsar’s Bride last night.

The story is the opposite of the music, a hodgepodge of mixed-up elixirs of love and death (thus the Danny Kaye reference), of mistresses scorned, evil German doctors, revenge, torture, a chorus triumphantly tramping off for massacres, a mad scene (à la Lucia), and a finale where virtually everybody dies except the unseen Tsar Ivan the Terrible (who doesn’t make an appearance but is a malevolent presence from beginning to end.)

Rimsky was such a master of fairy-tales and legends, Russian and Arabic fantasies, that this supposed historical tale of revenge seemed an absurd tragedy, three hours, I felt, that would be barely bearable.

That, though, was prior to actually hearing the Bolshoi Opera Symphony and Chorus, a fantastic assemblage of soloists, and the legendary great conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. He led with the kind of 15-inch baton necessary for conducting the stage from an orchestra pit. But this was a concert version. And while I might relish seeing it on stage, with its parties, knifings, poisoned tumblers and 16th Century barbaric Tsarist grandeur , we were well satisfied with well-suited men and well dressed men and ladies doing their stuff.

Which is where Rimsky-Korsakov comes in. The story may be absurd, the style for a post-Wagnerian opera (1899) was anachronistic, but the melodies and tensions were stunning. This was not exactly bel canto opera, but all the 18th Century styles were here–and done with style, passion and emotion.

Here was the Mad Scene of Marta, the heroine, poisoned, dying a slow death, lying on her couch, then sleepwalking, mistaking her poisoner for her lover. (The poisoner had actually killed her lover). The aria really is out of Donizetti, but with a Russian vim and vigor even in dying.

Here is Lyubasha, the mistress jealous of the heroine, a mezzo Lady Macbeth in her arias, plotting revenge, shrinking with her own manias.

We have a Verdi-like ensemble in the first act, with a would-be lover, a scorned mistress, a crazy German doctor with the love and poison potions. We have a sextet in the finale, as all the characters sing of their guilt.

The father of the heroine is an extraordinary basso profundo, straight out of Boris, but with jolly tunes celebrating marriage. We have a melodramatic moment out of the third act, where the family–Marta’s mother and father, her wimpy ineffectual childhood sweetheart, the would-be lover and the mistress scorned, are waiting to hear who the Tsar will choose for his next bride. Not until the last line do we find that Marta is to be the bride, and the stage goes wild with music.

Rimsky-Korsakov is renowned so much for his orchestration that one forgets just what lyrical invention he can summon up, as in the exotic Sheherezade. But in an old-style opera like this, one listens carefully to see how wonderfully he shapes the songs and choruses.

Even more inventive is Rimsky’s use of the Tsarist Anthem, which we know so well from Mussorgsky’s Boris. Used here as a leitmotiv, Rimsky creates it as background for the songs, plays a little divertimento on it orchestrally, and almost manages to make it a unifying part in an opera which depends upon the unseen presence of Ivan the Terrible.

“Europeans say,” sings one character, “that they feel our Tsar is terrible.”

“Perhaps,” says another, “but like a tree chopped down in the forest, it allows other trees to grow.”

After the overture, it took only five minutes to suspend one’s disbelief and begin to involve oneself with the characters here, Partly this was due to the composition. But equally, the entire Bolshoi Ensemble was so utterly passionate in their performances.

One would expect nothing less from Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, for he knows his Russian orchestras. One would never compare the Bolshoi with the New York Phil or any other orchestra. Their sounds are darker, the strings and winds are harder, the brasses are more blatant. Yes, the Bolshoi has played this music so frequently that not a mistake could be heard. The colors, though, are deep Russian, of a time an place from an alien country.

The singers, all Russian, were, frankly unmatchable. The mezzo mistress, played the first night by Agunda Kalaeva, had as much clarity in her voice as vitriol in her emotions. Basso profundo Vladimir Matorin had a subsidiary role, but that voice in the deepest ranges, was clear, tuneful and almost cheery.

The would-be lover–who asks for a love potion but is tricked into giving his would-be love a poison–was baritone Elchin Azizov, an enthusiastic seducer, once again booming out his conquests. And the heroine, Marta, has only one really brilliant aria (she doesn’t even appear until the second act), this her Mad Scene. Olga Tsybulko had a bright lyrical voice. Yet dramatically, emotionally she was in the shadows after the other characters.

One knowledgeable audience member mentioned that The Tsar’s Bride might well be staged in New York, and while that is fine, it could actually detract from the pure dramatic music on stage. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was no admirer of Wagner, and I read somewhere that he wanted this opera, with its arias and recitatives to be the “opposite” of a Wagnerian opera.

That was true, and with a lesser composer could have been a disaster.

Instead, notwithstanding the poison in the pellet from the vessel with the pestle (actually placed by a bumbler in the tumbler) and other contrivances, this was grand opera with an irresistibly appealing operatic grandeur.

Harry Rolnick



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