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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
The Tsar’s Bride - opera in 4 acts (1898)
Libretto - Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Ilya Tyumenev, after Lev Mey
Vasily Sobakin - Anatoli Kotscherga (bass)
Marfa - Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Grigory Gryaznoy - Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone)
Ivan Lykov - Pavel Cernoch (tenor)
Lyubasha - Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo)
Dunyasha - Anna Lapovskaya (mezzo)
Grigory Malyuta-Skuratov - Tobias Schabel (bass)
Domna Saburova - Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Staatsoper im Schiller Theater Berlin, October 2013
Stage direction: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Sung in Russian
Subtitles: English, French, German
2.0 PCM/5.1 Dolby Digital
DVD 9 NTSC 16:9
Region Code: 0
Booklet enclosed

In the last decade and a half of his life Rimsky-Korsakov turned his attention almost exclusively to the field of opera, producing almost a dozen. While Wagner had been one of the original inspirations for this interest, by the time Rimsky came to write The Tsar’s Bride he had eschewed Wagner for a simpler, more Italianate, style. Here this is applied to a historical tale by Mey dealing with a true episode: the death, a short time after marriage to Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible), of the real Marfa Sobakin. Ivan’s influence hangs over the entire opera although he never utters a word and is usually represented by his dreaded Oprichniki or secret police. The tension between the dramatic events and Rimsky’s simple style creates a sense of unease and foreboding rare in the composer’s works.

After the well-known overture to The Tsar’s Bride we find ourselves in the home of the prominent Oprichnik Grigori Gryaznoy. In the aria ‘The Beauty’s on my Mind” he laments his love for Marfa Sobakin, who is engaged to the nobleman Ivan Lykov. To distract himself Gryaznoy throws a party, the guests including Ivan as well as the even more important Oprichnik Grigori Malyuta. The latter asks for a song from Gryaznoy’s mistress Lyubasha who sings the haunting “Hurry up dear mother”. As the guests are leaving Gryaznoy asks Bomelius, the Tsar’s physician, for a potion to make Marfa love him. Bomelius agrees but is overheard by Lyubasha, leading to a major confrontation and Gryaznoy’s final rejection of Lyubasha. She is now ready to do anything to get him back. At the start of Act 2 the Tsar announces that he will pick a new bride from among the most beautiful young maidens, which includes Marfa and her best friend Dunyasha. Marfa is only interested in telling Dunyasha about her long-standing love for Ivan (“How calming this evening is”). In the mean time Lyubasha is lurking outside Marfa’s house and the sight of Marfa only strengthens her resolve to get rid of her rival. She goes to the house of Bomelius and obtains a poison that she will substitute for Gryaznoy’s love potion.

In Act 3 all are preparing for the wedding of Marfa and Ivan when Sobakin confides to Ivan that Marfa and Dunyasha are among the maidens to be examined by the Tsar. Dunyasha’s mother returns from the bridal pageant and is sure that her daughter will be chosen as Tsarina. The party continues and Gryaznoy, who is to be Ivan’s best man, pours the potion into Marfa’s glass. Soon after Malyuta arrives with the news that the Tsar has chosen Marfa for his bride. In Act 4 Marfa has become ill after learning she will be Czarina (and because of the potion), and under torture Ivan has confessed to poisoning her and been executed. This news drives Marfa mad and in her delirium she mistakes Gryaznoy for Ivan (“Ivan Sergeyevich, do you want to go the garden”). Gryaznoy confesses that he gave the potion to Marfa and caused the death of Ivan. Lyubasha appears and explains her substitution of the poison for the love potion and is killed by Gryaznoy, who begs the dying Marfa for forgiveness.

Although the action of The Tsar’s Bride is set in the late 16th century this production is staged in the present day. This is nothing unusual. What is distinctive is that much of this takes place in a combined broadcast studio/CGI center. This enables director and designer Dmitri Tcherniakov to suggest the sense of constantly being observed or spied upon typical of a repressive society such as that presided over by Ivan the Terrible. It also makes us feel that the Tsar himself is present even when he is not. In addition, the image of the Tsar is contently seen on screens - in the broadcast studio and on television, reminiscent of the “cult of personality” used by various Russian rulers of the last 400 years.

Unfortunately, Tcherniakov’s direction is not as interesting as his stage setting and effects. The chorus and soloists are frequently blocked in awkward places or unrealistic ways. These interfere with both the action and our viewing of it. This combines with rather poor camera placement further distancing the viewer from the action.

Barenboim’s treatment of the score is clean and transparent, just right for Rimsky’s “Italianate” opera. Occasionally he misses on the overall pacing of the music but this does not last long. He ably accentuates the contrast between the simple emotions of Marfa, Ivan and their relatives and the brutal machinations of Ivan the Terrible and his Oprichniki. The orchestra takes full advantage of the clarity of the score, especially the woodwinds, so important in Rimsky’s operas. They also supply the requisite Russian folk flavour and deliver drama when required. Barenboim has already recorded Eugene Onegin (see link) and Prokofiev’s The Gambler (see link). His sweep and orchestral control in these works and The Tsar’s Bride lead us to hope he will record more of the Russian operatic oeuvre.

In the role of Marfa Olga Peretyatko is suitably innocent in “How calming this evening is” and especially convincing in the quartet in scene 3. Her voice is not quite powerful enough in much of Act 3 but she puts more into the final act and as she slowly dies in Act 4 she is very moving. Pavel Cernoch, as Ivan, is less convincing. His voice is rather colourless and his characterization lacks force. Johannes Martin Kränzle is impressive dramatically although his voice is sometimes harsh in the first act, but everything comes together for him in the last act. Though she does not have a big part Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Dunyasha’s mother is affecting as always. I have left Anita Rachvelishvili for last because the role of Lyubasha is perhaps as central as that of Marfa. Ms. Rachvelishvili meets the challenge both vocally and dramatically, ranging from pathetic to almost demented to despairing, and adjusting her vocal style accordingly.

There are two alternatives to this DVD. One is a film version (about two-thirds of the actual opera) from 1965, directed by Vladimir Gorikker and conducted by Svetlanov, with the Bolshoi Opera. The other is a filming of the full opera, again from the Bolshoi, from 1983, conducted by Yuri Simonov. Each of these may appeal to certain listeners. However, for those looking for an up-to-date and complete version of The Tsar’s Bride, this is the only set currently available.

William Kreindler


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