Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Oprichnik enjoys its English premiere from the Chelsea Opera Group

11 March 2023

A performance at Cadogan Hall that proved Tchaikovsky’s rarity deserves to be far better known.

Cadogan Hall

Cadogan Hall (Photo: Barry Creasy)

Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik, which premiered in 1874 at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, is based on the eponymous play by Ivan Lazhechnikov, written in 1843 but only published in 1867. Set in the second half of the 16th century, its subject matter is the Oprichniks who were a personal corps of guardsmen loyal only to Tsar Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible. They persecuted anyone who might threaten his position in exchange for personal privileges, and over time moved from targeting the nobility to terrorising the peasantry in their increased attempts to take control of the land.

The story sees Prince Zhemchuzhnïy attempt to arrange a marriage between his daughter Natalya and an older man, Molchan Mitkov. Natalya, however, loves Andrey Morozov, whose family has been impoverished by Zhemchuzhnïy. This does not affect Andrey’s love for Natalya, but he does seek vengeance on her father for killing his own, and plans to join the Oprichniks as a means of achieving his goal. Andrey’s mother Boyarynya Morozova seems disturbed by his apparent intentions, so he decides to keep her in the dark over them. When he meets the Oprichniks, Prince Vyazminsky insists that to join them he must swear an oath that would mean renouncing his mother and Natalya, the very people who are the reason he is there in the first place. Sensing reluctance and weakness, Vyazminsky pushes harder and Andrey eventually swears the oath, even though he knows it is wrong to renounce his loved ones.

As Natalya continues to resist Zhemchuzhnïy’s attempts to marry her to Mitkov, Morozova realises that Andrey must have joined the hated Oprichniks and renounced her. Another Oprichnik, Fedor Basmanov, attempts to resolve the situation by suggesting they ask the Tsar if he will dissolve Andrey’s oath, which would leave him free to marry Natalya. Most characters support this, although Zhemchuzhnïy hopes the Tsar will instead return his daughter to him.

Andrey’s plea is successful and he is about to marry Natalya when Basmanov announces that he is still an Oprichnik until midnight. Thus, when Vyazminsky tells Andrey that the Tsar has heard of Natalya’s beauty and wishes to see her alone, Andrey is bound by oath to send her to him or otherwise be killed. Andrey cannot bring himself to agree and so is led to the executioner, as Morozova drops dead in shock and the chorus praises the Tsar!    

Although no one could suggest Oprichnik is Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera, it certainly possesses some beautiful music and dramatic moments that make it worthy of being heard far more than it is. The story may be found wanting as it features substantial plot holes and periods that lack focus. It seems strange to begin the opera with a lengthy scene in which Zhemchuzhnïy agrees his daughter’s marriage with Mitkov when the latter character never appears again.

“Although no one could suggest Oprichnik is Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera, it certainly possesses some beautiful music…”

Nevertheless, the plot does not seem to be the primary reason for the opera falling into obscurity. In criticising Russian rulers, the subject matter was always going to be contentious, which explains why Lazhechnikov’s play took over 20 years to be published. The reason why Tchaikovsky’s opera was initially successful in 1874 (some critics may have disliked it, but audiences embraced it) is that the problems associated with the chosen subject were by that time reduced. By making the Tsar an unseen character, and implying that he is a benevolent figure who stands above the distasteful Oprichniks, as opposed to being the making of them, criticism of the regime could be minimised. In addition, with the emancipation of the serfs having occurred 13 years earlier in 1861, Russia was enjoying a period of seeing itself as more liberal.

This did not persist as the 1870s wore on and there were several assassination attempts against Tsar Alexander II, who finally succumbed to one in 1881. If this made Oprichnik less acceptable (a planned revival in 1879 was cancelled), Tchaikovsky himself provided little impetus for the work by seeing it as something of a failure. Interestingly, it was always the orchestration with which he seemed dissatisfied, where any problems would seem rather minor, and not the plot, against which many more criticisms might be levied. In any case, the opera has enjoyed very few performances outside Russia. Scottish Opera secured its UK premiere in 1992, but this concert performance by the Chelsea Opera Group constituted its first ever outing in England.

Oprichnik includes music from Tchaikovsky’s Voyevoda of 1869, particularly in Act I which, whether coincidentally or not, feels the weakest dramatically. In a programme note and pre-concert talk musicologist Bruno Bower explained that Tchaikovsky believed Russia needed operas it could call its own. This posed many questions such as whether Russian opera should follow ‘Western’ formulae and structures, and to what extent it should incorporate traditional folk or religious music. Bower feels that Tchaikovsky’s conclusions to these questions fluctuated with his output, ensuring that not all of his operas were aligned in the same way. In the case of Oprichnik, however, he believes that one can hear, to greater or lesser degrees, elements of Wagner, Liszt, Verdi and Rossini, particularly in the manner in which a Rossini finale can see everything freeze before pandemonium is unleashed once more.

There are some highly dramatic moments, with the end of Act II being particularly powerful and featuring some interesting brass effects. The idea of the start of the final act seeing happiness not simply within reach, but actually having been achieved, only for it then to be taken away again seems reminiscent of Les vêpres siciliennes. Some of the writing almost sounds more like Mussorgsky than Tchaikovsky, although that may be in part because we hear the music in tandem with a subject matter that seems reminiscent of that composer. The focus here is on the Oprichniks in the same way as his various operas centre on Boyars or the Khovanshchina. Much of the folk style music that Tchaikovsky wrote for the opera sounds very authentic, and it was sung extremely well by the Chelsea Opera Group chorus, which excelled throughout the evening.

James Ham’s conducting was astute and effective, and the singers and orchestra just got better and better as the evening went on. If things seemed to get off to a slightly slow start, this was far more attributable to the problematic nature of Act I than with anyone’s performance. As Andrey, Brian Smith Walters revealed a highly expansive tenor, while, as Natalya, Seljan Nasibli displayed a glistening and appealing soprano. Emma Stannard revealed a notably secure and engaging mezzo-soprano as Basmanov, and Stephen Richardson an excellent bass as Zhemchuzhnïy. There was also strong support from Aidan Smith as Mitkov, Elinor Rolfe Johnson as Natalya’s maid Zakharyevna and Nicholas Lester as Vyazminsky, while, as Morozova, Yvonne Howard was a class act with her final cry as she dies feeling especially impassioned. Much as one could envisage how powerful it would be to see the chorus of Oprichniks surrounding Andrey with their swords held above him as he prepares to swear his oath, overall this is an opera that would seem difficult to stage. As a result, it is a piece that may work best in the concert hall, and the strength of the Chelsea Opera Group’s performance certainly made it easy to believe that that is the case.    

• A 2003 recording of Oprichnik, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, is available on the Dynamic label.     

• For details of all the Chelsea Opera Group’s upcoming events in 2023, which include performances of La clemenza di Tito on 10 June and Un ballo in maschera on 22 October, visit its website.

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Oprichnik enjoys its English premiere from the Chelsea Opera Group