The Tsar’s Bride at The Royal Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tsar’s Bride: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 14.4.2011 (MB)

Marfa Sobakina – Marina Poplavskaya
Grigory Grigor’yevich Gryazony – Johan Reuter
Lyubasha – Ekaterina Gubanova
Ivan Sergeyevich Lïkov – Dmytro Popov
Yelisey Bomelius – Vasily Gorshkov
Vasily Sobakin – Paata Burchuladze
Dunyasha Saburova – Jurgita Adamonytė
Domna Ivanovna Saburova – Elizabeth Woollett
Grigory Luk’yanovich Malyuta-Skuratov – Alexander Vinogradov
Petrovna – Anne-Marie Owens
A Young Lad – Andrew O’Connor
A Girl – Louise Armit
The Tsar’s Stoker – Jonathan Coad


Paul Curran (director)
Kevin Knight (designs)
David Jacques (lighting)


One should try not to be churlish concerning The Tsar’s Bride. In a season not generally noted for its adventurousness, the Royal Opera was adding a new, hardly fashionable, work to its repertoire, in a performance and production that were for the most part impressive. If only, however, I could find myself more enthusiastic, or indeed even slightly enthusiastic, about the work itself, particularly, when considered vis-à-vis the precedent of the Royal Opera’s first, triumphant performances last year of another, this time monstrously unjustly, neglected Russian opera, The Gambler. This is a minor, frankly dull opera. One does not expect profundity from Rimsky-Korsakov: Stravinsky, often very fond of his teacher, admitted as much. However, one often at least receives in return, colour, exoticism, and sparkle. This music, though, comes across more as a faint copy of certain passages in Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, vaguely spiced up with occasional sub-Wagnerian harmonies taken out of context, and lumbered with an increasing, wearying Italianate sentimentalism to cement – I use the inelegant verb on purpose, since a clanging, mixed metaphor seems appropriate – the potion. (Potions, incidentally, are the clumsy hallmark of a plot that is silly, as the saying goes, ‘even by operatic standards’.) Rimsky’s repetitive use of a folk melody, apparently to signify the Tsar, the same melody that features unforgettably in the coronation scene to Boris Godunov, serves mostly to highlight the gulf between the composer and Mussorgsky, though at least it enables one from time to time to hear a good melody. It is worse, however, when Rimsky tries to exercise a melodic gift that is simply lacking; for instance in the interminable second-act aria in which Marfa, the girl who becomes the Tsar’s Bride – perhaps, given the feeble inspiration, it should come as a relief that we never meet Ivan the Terrible himself – sings about how she used to like to play in the garden with Lïkov, her childhood sweetheart, whom she almost marries before the Tsar chooses her as his bride. (It really is as banal as the description suggests.) The extended death scene, in which Marfa hallucinates, thinking Gryazony, who tried to win her with a love potion, substituted for a withering-away-and-dying potion by his jealous mistress, Lyubasha, is perhaps a little better, if one does not mind the women’s magazine plot-level of La traviata, but the lack of musical characterisation throughout makes it difficult to care either way about the fate of the characters.


It is said that the Royal Opera had initially intended a large-scale ‘traditional’ production: the thought immediately evokes Francesca Zambello, though that is mere speculation. Instead, however, we had an updating to contemporary Moscow from Paul Curran. Some aspects work better than others. The crowd’s aggressive Orthodoxy sounds a little odd on the drab streets outside the halls of the super-rich. Straightforward xenophobia might have made more sense. That said, the license taken by a newly moneyed class to do as it will has many parallels with the less absurd aspects of the story. The extra-legal behaviour of the Tsar’s thuggish secret police, the oprichniki, and the tasteless extravagance of the nouveaux riches are powerfully portrayed in Curran’s production and the designs of Kevin Knight. To open in a plush restaurant with Grayznoy, a member of the oprichniki, and a hooded victim of interrogation, later unhooded and revealed to be dead, carried away by the waiting staff before the party begins, works surprisingly well. The lapdancers who follow are well choreographed and heighten the sense of transformation to something we know only too well. The ghastliness of an apartment poolside in the third act and would-be tasteful – yet anything but – colour coordination from the guests against a Rococo backdrop for the fourth and final act are again judicious. There is perhaps a hint of drugs overtaking the idea of potions, but it does not seem to be followed through. Personenregie is keen throughout.


After an oddly hard-driven account of the overture, Sir Mark Elder settled into what seemed a good account of the score, though I could not help but wish that he had rushed us through or cut that second-act aria. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on good form, a few slips notwithstanding; the clarinet solo of the fourth act’s protracted death scene was beautifully taken. Johan Reuter made what he could, in a characteristically thoughtful performance, of Gryaznov. Indeed, all the male singers were very good: a new star for me was Alexander Vinogradov, as the ruthless yet undoubtedly charismatic and alluring leader of the oprichniki, Malyuta-Skuratov. I hope to hear more of him before long. Marina Poplavskaya seems to have a large body of adherents; it has never been clear why, whenever I have heard her. Here again, her intonation was all over the place, though she recovered somewhat for the fourth act – and perhaps not just because inaccurate tuning seems more excusable when a character is dying. She was certainly outsung by the wonderful Jurgita Adamonytė, in the relatively small part of her friend, Dunyasha, not to mention the magnificent Ekaterina Gubanova as the jealous mistress, Lyubasha. Hers was a proud portrayal indeed: one dreads to think what Poplavskaya would have made of her unaccompanied song in the first act, here delivered beautifully and as movingly as the score permitted.


Mark Berry