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Seen and Heard Opera Review


GLINKA A Life for the Tsar Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group/Alexander Walker, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday, 27th November, 2004 (CC)

A great success in its native Russia, and indeed the first Russian opera to be performed abroad (in Prague, 1866, conducted by Balakirev), Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar has never been part of the accepted canon here. All thanks to the Chelsea Opera Group for giving the London public a chance to evaluate this most attractive score, then (sung in English, by the way).

A Life for the Tsar mixes nationalistic subject, Russian folk music and Glinka’s own brand of expression into a generally convincing whole. Far from short (2210 departure after a 1900 start), Glinka weaves a varied tapestry to support the libretto, complete with Polonaises and Mazurkas for the Poles (the conflict between Russia and Poland is a central theme of the opera).

If the orchestra’s (presumably) semi-pro status was at various points evident in the course of the overture, the chorus of villagers that opens the opera was as lusty as one could wish. But it was the soloists that made the evening, making a strong case for this infrequently performed work. Linda Richardson’s Antonida was florid in her Act I Cavatina. A pity her fiancée (in the plot), Bogdan Sobinin (sung by tenor John Upperton) was rather tremulous and flat. To this was added the rock-solid bass of Vassily Savenko as Ivan Susanin, Antonida’s father and the hero of the story (the three participate in a moving Trio in Act I).

Act II brings a change of scene from the Kostroma province (north-east of Moscow) to a hall in a Polish castle for the contrastive celebrations of the second act, where the Polish flavour is created by Polonaises and Mazurkas. Nicely-sprung rhythms added to the festive cheer. The chorus had much to do in this act, and coped generally well.

Anna Burford, the true star of this performance (she created another stir with this reviewer recently at the Coliseum in Berlioz’ Trojans), took the part of Vanya, a trouser role (Susanin’s adopted son). Listed as a mezzo in the cast-list, she is surely more contralto, and her warm, sometimes grainy and firm voice is a magnificent instrument. A shame in a sense that Glinka juxtaposes Vanya with Sobinin as Burford was streets ahead of Upperton, vocally and dramatically, her projection of her lower register a thing of magnificence. Vassily Savenko’s bass Susanin (a Ukrainian singing a Russian role in English!) was much more of a match for her. Apparently Savenko has sung Iago for Gergiev at the Kirov. Eminently believable.

Savenko was most memorable in the Act IV soliloquies, so sparsely accompanied. He created a positively rapt atmosphere, no more so than in his Scene 2 prayer as he asks God to protect him as he leads the Poles out of the way so that the Tsar-to-be is safe, his diversionary tactic all along.

A celebratory Epilogue (surely such a large chorus could have made more sound?) rounds off the evening. The orchestra coped well, if a little sloppily when scene-painting at the beginning of Act III. The conductor, Alexander Walker, accompanied his singers expertly.

This was an opportunity not to be missed. Could ENO, I wonder, be persuaded to mount a production?

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Capriccio 1078385. Sols, Sofia National Chorus & Orchestra.




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