Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
The Tsar's Bride – opera in four acts (1898)
Marfa - Ekaterina Kudriavchenko (soprano)
Ivan Likov - Arkady Mishenkin (tenor)
Grigory Gryaznoy - Vladislav Verestnikov (baritone)
Lyubasha - Nina Terentieva (mezzo)
Bomelius - Vladimir Kudriashov (tenor)
Vasily Sobakin - Pyotr Gluboky (bass)
Dunyash - Elena Okolysheva (alto)
Saburova - Irina Udalova (soprano)
Grigory Malyuta-Skuratov - Nikolai Nizienko (bass)
Servant - Nina Larionova (mezzo)
Petrovna - Tatiana Pechuria (mezzo)
Coachman - Vladislav Pashinsky (bass)
Young Lad - Yuri Markelov (tenor)
Sveshnikov Russian Academic Choir
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Andrey Chistiakov
rec. Moscow, 1992
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93969 [75:33 + 70:41]

It is unfortunate that this all-Russian recording from 1992 must inevitably be considered alongside the far slicker, starrier Philips set from 1998 conducted by Gergiev with Kirov forces. Apart from rather dry sound, the comparison most to its disadvantage lies in the quality of solo voices: Hvorostovsky for Gergiev is in silkiest, most vibrant voice and baritone Vladislav Verestnikov’s cloudy, laboured sound simply does not measure up to his. One might argue that at least he does not run the risk Hvorostovsky courts by making an essentially repellent, aging rapist too sympathetic but vocally Verestnikov is undistinguished. Similarly, although she is rich and expressive, Nina Terentieva’s smoky mezzo, with its incipient wobble, is not the plush instrument that belongs to Olga Borodina, nor is soprano Ekatarina Kudriavchenko as impressive as Marina Shaguch – although both can become edgy up top in the unattractive Russian manner. Tenor Arkady Mishenkin is nasal and piercing and the basses are trenchant but lumpy. Conductor Andrey Chistiakov is never less than competent but happier in more lyrical passages than those requiring drive and tension.

“The Tsar’s Bride” is a many ways almost a parody of the typical grim Russian opera, with its dark, atmosphere, victimisation of innocents, folksy interludes and the conflict between family and tradition versus the corruption and egoism of the court. Rimsky-Korsakov’s music betrays the heavy influence of Tchaikovsky – immediately obvious in the martial motif and soaring melody which alternate in the overture - and even quotes a theme from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” to represent the unseen Tsar. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov did not have his predecessor’s dramatic gifts; too often there is a static quality to his writing which is probably at the heart of this opera’s never having caught on in the West. Too many of the arias fail to lift off, although there are highlights, such as the anti-hero Gryaznoy’s ruminations which open the opera and the concluding “mad scene” for Marfa. Rimsky said, “Thank God I am, it would seem, no dramatic composer”; it is not always possible to endorse his sentiments despite the compensations of his lyrical gifts. Too often the action seems held to permit the performance of a set piece in the manner of “Sadko”.

This is the most political and realistic of his operas with suggestions of the combination of epic quality and psychological subtlety found in “Boris” and “Khovanshchina” but little of their sweep and momentum and a rather incongruous emphasis upon bel canto. Rather more of the latter is realised by the singers in Gergiev’s recording. Despite its distinct price advantage, it is hard to recommend this bargain Brilliant issue over the Philips.

A synopsis and cues are provided; a libretto is available online.

Ralph Moore

Despite its distinct price advantage, it is hard to recommend this bargain Brilliant issue over the Philips.