The Tsar’s Bride, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, April 2011

This is about love, jealousy, guilt and remorse — ideal material for opera — ostensibly set in the time of Ivan the Terrible (late Tudor period in England). The power of the oligarchs and the state security police (the oprichniki) is part of the story, and director Paul Curran, who has lived and worked in Russia, sets it all in modern times. The result carries complete conviction, allowing the human emotions, insecurities and scheming to shine through in a milieu that is easy for us to understand.

Lïkov and Marfa in Act 2, all photos ROH/Bill Cooper

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote this opera at the end of the nineteenth century, and made no attempt to follow what was becoming an academically Russian style. Quite the opposite in fact, and in Act I the young man Lïkov, who is in love with the heroine Marfa, sings a beautiful arioso commenting favourably on the way things are done in Germany. This is immediately countered by a chorus singing the glories of the Tsar, and dancing girls who entertain the oprichniki at a party given by Gryaznoy. He is also in love with Marfa, and his mistress Lyubasha is insanely jealous, to the extent that she asks the Tsar’s pharmacist Bomelius to give her a potion that will destroy Marfa’s beauty. Gryaznoy also acquires a potion — to make Marfa fall in love with him — and he gets her to drink it before her wedding to Lïkov.

Act 3, the wedding party for Lïkov and Marfa

The Tsar himself we never see, but he’s in the process of choosing a wife, and his choice falls on Marfa. She, however, has taken the potion given her by Gryaznoy, and yet unbeknownst to him, Lyubasha has switched the potions. These multiple deceptions end in tragedy in the last Act, as Marfa, now the Tsarina, finds herself dying. To cover himself, Gryaznoy has accused Lïkov and killed him, but as Marfa becomes delirious she believes Gryaznoy to be her beloved Lïkov, and he is overwhelmed by remorse. He admits to his crime, only to be outdone by the scheming Lyubasha, who realises she’s lost him. Death all round, but in the style of great opera we were rewarded with glorious singing.

Marina Poplavskaya was a wonderful Marfa, so pure of tone and innocent looking. Johan Reuter portrayed a powerful Gryaznoy, and Dmytro Popov sang Lïkov with a lovely lilt to his tenor voice. The other fine tenor voice was Vasily Gorshkov as Bomelius the pharmacist. The bass role of Marfa’s father was well sung by Paata Burchuladze, and it was altogether a strong cast, with Ekaterina Gubanova singing powerfully as Lyubasha, particularly in her unaccompanied aria in Act I.

Act 4 in the Tsars palace, Marfa lies dead

The direction by Paul Curran was excellent producing well-nuanced and entirely convincing performances. Sets and costumes by Kevin Knight were superb, and I loved the women’s costumes in the Tsar’s palace for Act IV. The purples blended with the gold leaf in the background, and gave a perfection to what in fact is a frightful scene of madness and eventual death. The set in Act III was simply fabulous, a penthouse with an outdoor pool, and the lighting by David Martin Jacques was remarkable. The bright skyscrapers in the distance, and the reflection of the pool on the upper facade of the balcony drew spontaneous applause from the audience.

Act 4, Gryaznoy kills Lyubasha

This opera is a favourite Rimsky-Korsakov work in Russia, yet little known in the West. The trouble is of course that recordings, and even scores, were not readily available until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we need to be seeing more of these works. Mark Elder did a terrific job with the orchestra, bringing the score to life, just as the production brought the story to life. For anyone who thinks this representation of Russia is over the top, and I met one such, read Adrian Mourby’s excellent essay in the programme. Yes, Russia looks entirely normal, but the abnormalities are associated with the oligarchs, and this is essentially the setting of The Tsar’s Bride.

Performances continue until May 2 — for more details click here.

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