10 Apr 2011

Paata Burchuladze, The Tsar’s Bride, London

“A tale of corruption, passion and poisoning”, as the Royal Opera House, London, describes its first-ever production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, with Paata Burchuladze, highly experienced in this repertoire.

“Vasily Stepanovich Sobakin”, says Burchuladze, “is a man who has everything, a big family, all his sons happily settled down. He’s a successful merchant in Novgorod and has plenty of money and security. Now his favourite child, probably his only daughter, is engaged to marry the man she loves. So Sobakin is filled with happiness, everything seems just perfect”.

But Marfa Vasilyevna has been seen by Grigory Gryazanoy, the oprichnik. Since he’s above the law he can get what he wants. Lyubasha, his mistress, then resorts to poison. The Tsar Ivan the Terrible chooses Marfa for his bride. Assaulted by this abuse of authority, Marfa and her lover Lykov are destroyed. “Sobakin’s famous Act IV aria, “Zabylasya”, says Burchuladze, “doesn’t last very long, but it’s very touching. It’s poignant because he is expressing a great range of feelings, sorrow, loss and also, anger. Sobakin is a good man, but in this vendetta, he is capable of killing, too”.

The Tsar’s Bride,(Tsarskaya nevesta) is standard repertoire in Russian-speaking countries. Although it’s set in the time of Ivan the Terrible, he wasn’t the only absolutist ruler Russian audiences would have known. Secret mafias, and the arbitrary misuse of power weren’t a monopoly of the Tsars. Burchuladze grew up in the Soviet Union and recognizes the significance. “This production” he says “isn’t set in the ancient past”. Although there are numerous recordings of this opera, western audiences may not have experienced it live. Perhaps they shouldn’t come expecting decorative “Russianism”, but to hear how Rimsky-Korsakov shapes the drama through his music. The director, Paul Curran, has worked with the Kirov and Mariinsky, and appreciates the context.

Burchuladze made his debut at the Royal Opera House in London as Ramfis in Verdi Aida with Luciano Pavarotti. Katia Ricciarelli and Zubin Mehta. He was a sensation. “What can I tell you about Pavarotti ?”, sighs Burchuladze, with feeling. “He was a big man, his body was big but also his heart. Everything about him, was open and warm. I was only 30 when I sang that Ramfis and he was a huge star but he looked after me. We worked together in Vienna, in the US, many times. Pavarotti was so technically wonderful that there was no limit to his singing. He could open up his whole persona. He was the best person in my life”.

Burchuladze himself is an open-hearted personality. “ I love to sing, I live to sing”, he says. “When you go on a stage, you must enjoy what you are doing, or the public won’t enjoy it. I love to sing roles that I can identify with and express their feelings”. Favourite roles are Attila, Philip II, Mefistofele, Zaccaria in Nabucco....”. His eyes light up as he lists the parts. “I like strong, passionate characters” he smiles, “but I also like buffo, like Don Basilio and wonderful fantasies like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or.“ Next season, he’s singing The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. .

He also has a lot of respect for Boris Gudonov, with whom he’s so closely associated that he’s created the role in nearly every major opera house around the world. “Boris is a good man”, says Burchuladze. “Nobody knows if he killed the Tsarevich. Maybe he just thought about it and his followers did the work. But Boris feels guilt. He feels sorry for what has happened. So many people with that kind of power have no conscience. They kill and hurt people without any responsibility. Boris gets depressed because he knows right from wrong. That’s why he’s a good person”. Similarities with the situation in The Tsar’s Bride are not amiss.

With Pavarotti, Burchuladze recorded Aida (La Scala), Nabucco (Verona), and Ernani (Bonynge, WNO) but his experience is far more extensive. He’s recorded a lot of Mussorgsky, for example, including with Abbado in Vienna. His reputation rests both on Russian and Italian repertoire, and on Mozart. Born in Tblisi, he trained first in the Georgian Conservatoire, and in 1979, aged 24, moved to Milan, where he studied under Guilietta Simionato.

Although Burchuladze’s mother was a keen amateur pianist, he initially studied engineering at University. “I wanted to build things, like my father”, he says. One day, though, he was asked to sing at the conservatoire and suddenly realized that singing would be his future. “Once you get applause on stage, you’re hooked forever!”

Although Tblisi is still his home, he doesn’t teach. “It’s not fair on students” he says, “students need a teacher around all the time, and I’m always travelling, so I couldn’t give them the attention they need”. This steadiness matters a lot to him. As a young man, Herbert von Karajan described Burchuladze as “The Second Chaliapin”. It was a sensation but a mixed blessing. “When one legend compares you to another legend, it’s a lot to carry on your shoulders. People don’t expect you to be yourself”.

Burchuladze models himself on consistency. “I want to be singing for 50 years, so I pace myself. Seven or eight years ago I was singing Zaccaria in Japan. There were two alternate casts and the other singer was Bonaldo Giaiotti. He was 72 years old at the time and still singing one of the most difficult parts for our voice type, and he sang it perfectly. I can’t imagine life without singing, so I want to be like that. By the time I reach 72, I will have had 50 years as a professional. That’s something that would make me very happy”. After The Tsar’s Bride in London, he has a full schedule ahead, including a gala with Pl├ícido Domingo and opera appearances all over the world, so chances are Burchuladze will achieve that dream.


Anne Ozorio

For details of Rimsky-Korakov The Tsar’s Bride at the Royal Opera House, London please see the ROH site. The production runs from 14th April to 2nd May 2011.

For details of Paata Burchuladze’s career, please see his website.