Paul Curran was faced with a choice in approaching Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride: to present the work as an historical drama in the time of Ivan the Terrible, or to update it to a modern setting. In choosing the latter, Curran took the concept to its logical conclusion and situated his production in contemporary Russia. Every aspect of the staging and visually impressive sets neatly underlined the sharp divide that exists between the super-rich and the average struggling citizen. In reality though, the glittering faade enjoyed by Society’s elite, held in place by the officers of the oprichniki or secret armed guard, is founded precariously on ill-gotten gains and dodgy backstreet deals with characters of dubious reputation.
Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov’s approach to opera is somewhat unconventional in The Tsar’s Bride, with a key moment of decision and stress being emphasised through unaccompanied arias, notably Dunyasha’s Act I aria. The lasting effect, though, is to give prominence to the voice. This only served to throw the contrasts portrayed on the stage under an even greater spotlight. For the most part though, Rimsky-Korsakov’s music proves full of wonderful melodies expanded with skill using a rich palette throughout the orchestration. So more is the pity that it The Tsar’s Bride has suffered the level of neglect that has impeded wider public appreciation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas in the UK. When performed, the music is its own best advocate, and when allied to the vision of an understanding director, the opera’s immediacy and topicality become undeniable.
Sir Mark Elder provided an admirable sense of cohesion and relative instrumental weight amongst the orchestra and much in the way of forward momentum when he could. All five principal members of the cast offered strongly sung and acted interpretations of their roles. Oprichniki member Grigory Gryaznoy, more than ably taken on by Danish baritone Johan Reuter, was ruthlessly controlling and unfeeling from the start the image of a man brought down by his own position of power over the lives of those beneath him. His boss, Skuratov, was sung with snide superiority by tenor Alexander Vinogradov.
The thrust of the opera though surrounds Grigory’s love interest Marfa, who is chosen to marry the Tsar. With this simple announcement Grigory realises that his love for Marfa is not over, and rejects his current mistress, Lyubasha. This course of action is all the provocation Lyubasha needs to save Grigory from himself, and set the two women up as rivals. Indeed, as characters, they are polar opposites. Lyubasha, headstrong and determined, was played with total conviction by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, making her first return to the Covent Garden stage since 2004 when she was a Jette Parker Young Artist. Vocally, Gubanova has come a long way in the intervening years, and the energy with which she attacked the demanding role met the challenges head on with vocal security.
Marfa, on the other hand, charts a path from girlish happiness, through the excitement of her engagement and, ultimately, madness caused as much by her own unhappiness as the poisoning of others. Singing her role dbut was Marina Poplavskaya, who made the varying highs and lows of Marfa’s experience real and immediate. The Act IV mad scene proved her acting and vocal mettle beyond all doubt. Hopefully, her interpretation of the role will deepen still further in subsequent performances and productions. A suitable foil to her girlishness was provided by Lithuanian soprano Jurgita Adamonyte, lighter-toned and impetuous. Some much needed vocal robustness and experience was provided by Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze as Marfa’s father, Vasily. He alone, rejoices in her happiness and steadfastly stands as a watchful guard in her dying moments. Against Burchuladze’s impressive and rounded tone the bright nasality of Dmytro Popov’s Ivan Likov was readily and pleasingly apparent.
Those who cannot make it to Covent Garden for the remaining performances should put 11 June 2011 in their diaries, when Radio 3 will broadcast a recorded performance at 18.00.