As was too often the case when judging his own music, Tchaikovsky’s verdict on this, his third opera, was mercilessly self-critical, even though it proved to be his first and instant operatic success in 1874. A mere fortnight after its opening night, he wrote to his brother Modest, “The Oprichnik
torments me. This opera is so bad that I fled from all the rehearsals (especially those of Acts 3 and 4) so that I shouldn’t hear a single sound, and at the performance I would willingly have vanished. Isn't it strange that when I had written it, it seemed to me initially such a delight! But from the very first rehearsal, what disenchantment! There’s no movement, no style, no inspiration.”
Certainly not all the music here is his best; much of it was reworked from his abandoned and destroyed opera “Voyevoda” and there is a case for saying that it is very much a work of two halves: much of the first two Acts is routine but things really wake up with the Oath Scene, which is splendid and features some terrific, if edgy brass playing from the Moscow Radio Orchestra. The duet for Natalya and Morozova ten minutes into Act III confirms that henceforth the music will be of the standard we expect from the composer. He then sustains that quality through to the melodramatic climax which is reminiscent of the plot of “Il trovatore”, when a mother watches, aghast, the execution of her son.
The typically grim Russian plot also has something in common with operas such as “Khovanshchina” in which both the Tsar’s and his bodyguards (for Mussorgsky’s “streltsy” read “oprichniki”) wield a cruel and terrible power over the lives of ordinary folk, drunkenly raping, revelling, kidnapping and murdering. This Pristine issue provides programme notes online; for Russian speakers, an original language libretto may be found here
Most of us, however, will be content with the English only in a zipped Word document available on the Brilliant Classics website
for their own issue of this opera, the 2003 live recording conducted by Rozhdestvensky, first issued on the Dynamic label and now on Brilliant, which is far less well sung than this vintage 1948 radio broadcast. There are in fact only four recordings extant; this, the earliest, is virtually complete but with a few, brief cuts from Morozova’s Aria, the Boys’ Chorus and some cuts in the recitative and chorus in the last Act, the Wedding. More complete and in stereo is the 1978 radio broadcast conducted by Gennady Provatorov with what looks like on paper a good Russian cast and a 1979 Radio France broadcast conducted by Jean-Pierre Marty, but I have heard neither. Given the pedigree of the performers and the amazingly good quality of sound, originally on magnetic tape and here re-mastered by Pristine with their usual care and success onto Ambient Stereo, I would confidently wager that few lovers of Russian opera will be disappointed with the results here. There is a little peaking and some wiry strings but there is virtually no hiss after processing and in general you would take it for good, clean, only faintly papery 1950s mono rather than 78s issued in the late 1940s.
The cast is solid if not starry; both the singers and the conductor are obviously wholly at home with the idiom and as such we may be sure this performance is as authentic as one could wish. The overture is a folksy affair with a big melody entirely typical of Tchaikovsky. There are some steely violins and sour violas and when the voices enter they are clearly recorded in a very forward acoustic so some peaking in loud passages cannot be avoided, despite the skill of Andrew Rose’s re-mastering. Natalya Rozhdestvenskaya has a classically Russian, hard, bright, powerful soprano with a hint of edge but no wobble. Boris Tarkhov is perhaps the least satisfactory cast member; he has a rather hoarse, blaring tenor with too much vibrato which degenerates into a tremolo in the lower reaches of his voice. He also has a tendency to shout, but he is certainly animated. Lyudmila Legostayeva possesses a good, strong, steady mezzo-soprano. Konstantin Polyaev has a beautiful, imposing bass and the chorus in general makes a lovely sound.
The scarcity of recordings and the manner in which Pristine has given this one a new lease of life with its Ambient Stereo XR re-mastering technique combine to suggest that this new issue may legitimately make claims on the attention of convinced fans of more obscure Russian operas.