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Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov
02 Nov 2008

The Tsar’s Bride by OONY

What opera contains a terrific overture, a wedding sextet, two murderous magical potions, a mad scene for coloratura soprano, a magnificent a cappella aria for contralto, dozens of glorious melodies and lots of nifty choral writing?

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar’s Bride [Tsarskaya nevesta].

Marfa (Olga Makarina), Lyubasha (Olga Borodina), Lykov (Yeghishe Manucharyan). Bomelii (John Easterlin). Gryaznoi (Alexey Markov), Sobakin (Christophoros Stamboglis). Opera Orchestra of New York conducted by Eve Queler; performance of October 15.

Above: Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov


If you read the heading of this review, you already know the answer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride – one of the most popular operas throughout Russia, but downright obscure in the West – it has never been staged in New York (to my knowledge), despite a huge Russian community who would eat it up and a dozen visits over the years from three or four of Russia’s leading opera companies wasting our time with Mlada or Macbeth or far too many Onegins.

Rimsky-Korsakov was in an Italianate mood when he composed Tsar’s Bride, with its feast of plot complications and consequent musical situations: licentious boyar Grisha Gryaznoi (heroic baritone) lusts for Marfa (coloratura soprano), though she is about to wed her truelove Lykov (romantic tenor). Grisha persuades the tsar’s sinister German alchemist, Bomelii (character tenor), to concoct a potion that will make Marfa fall for best man Grisha instead. Complication one: Grisha’s jealous mistress Lyubasha (dynamite Slavic mezzo) switches the potion with another one, intended to destroy Marfa’s good looks – never mind how Lyubasha got the sleazy alchemist to run it up for her (think: Tosca). Complication two: Just as Marfa drinks the potion on her wedding day, news arrives that the tsar, Ivan the Terrible no less (sinister offstage presence), has chosen Marfa as his bride! Too, the potion – what was in it? – turns out to be poison that drives her lyrically insane. At curtain’s fall, everyone is either miserable or dead except the tsar, who remains off stage, singing (we may imagine), “Next!” (Ivan married more wives than Henry VIII. He once proposed to Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth.)

Bride is, thus, one of those operas (like Don Carlos or Don Giovanni or L’Africaine) where no single character grabs our attention all night; we are involved with the dilemmas and desires of many, and follow them through to a general catastrophe. One reason the opera may be rare over here may be the sheer number of great voices who are required to sing beautiful arias and ensembles in the true, flavorful Russian manner. Lyubasha calls for a grand low-voiced lady, with a voice from the vaults of the earth; it has long been a signature role for Borodina, and she graciously returned to sing it with Queler a second time. Marfa’s father, Sobakin, is a Russian bass from the old church-trained tradition, like Boris or Prince Igor or Prince Gremin. Marfa herself is an all-stops-out coloratura, whose lovely final scene is one of Rimsky’s handsomest tunes. And first and last there is the devilish Grisha Gryaznoi, whose outward brashness conceals inner torment, selfishness, crime and, finally, a (very Russian) orgy of guilt. Half a dozen minor roles have major parts to sing in solos and ensembles.

The problem is that it’s hard to bring in a worthy performance (and O.O.N.Y.’s was a very worthy performance) unless you have dozens of great Russian singers at your disposal – but that doesn’t prevent anyone in the West from staging Boris Godunov or even the far less theatrically promising Khovanshchina or Prince Igor – all three of which, by the way, might never have captured the stage at all had it not been for Rimsky-Korsakov’s now discredited editing.

Happily, Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York threw caution to the winds and brought this wonderful piece back to Carnegie Hall for the first New York hearing in twenty years. Olga Borodina, new in town at that previous performance, is now a grande dame and local favorite, but she retains the plummy low notes that make Lyubasha appealing, her disastrous passions touching. Borodina is one of the rare Russian singers (her husband, Ildar Abdrazakov, is another) who has no trouble singing Italian music idiomatically, without the voiced vowels and Slavic curlicues that make so many Russian opera singers a little risible in western song, but back in her native element there seem to be depths of tragic character lurking in the rounded shadows of her singing.

Alexey Markov made an exciting impression chewing up the stage as the narcissistic Grisha. He is a fine singing actor, with a plush, endearing baritone – and it is necessary that this character make himself a lovable scamp in the great narrations of the first act or his hideous behavior for the rest of the evening will only depress you. Yeghishe Manucharyan sang ardently and deft phrasing as Marfa’s hapless true love, but John Easterlin nearly stole the tenor honors with a Bomelii at once forceful and melodramatically harsh. You did not need a libretto to know which of these men was the lover and which the villain, and Easterlin made a villain it was a delight to hiss. Christophoros Stamboglis, as Marfa’s understandably confused father, had a good time with one of those stirring, from-the-depths-of-the-Russian-earth bass arias – only the last, very lowest note eluded him. There were many excellent young singers in minor but important roles (housekeeper, sister, mother – impossible to tell them apart as the electric titles often broke down and there was no printed libretto), and such poignant bits of music-making as the lovely wedding sextet (the last happy moment before the potion is drunk and Tsar Ivan’s messenger arrives) were revels in the bosom of vocal art.

John Yohalem

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