Seen and Heard
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’
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?
Capriccio 1078385. Sols, Sofia National Chorus &
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