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Oper Frankfurt, October 29 - November 19, 2006
|CD - complete recording:|
|Kirov: Gergiev, Akimov, Alexashkin (1999)|
|A video: Bolshoi Opera|
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a dozen or so full length operas,
some of which remain popular at the Russian opera houses, but make only occasional
appearances in the West. The Tsar's Bride is a genuine rarity, appearing this
season only in San Francisco and Moscow. San Francisco Opera's production, first seen at
Washington Opera in 1986, must have looked like a sure winner in the planning - a
lush production with a cast that promised first rate singing. That the reality falls short
of the promise raises the question of whether the opera itself is inherently lacking or if
the fault lies in the current production/performance.
The story centers on Marfa, a young beauty betrothed to Lykov. Gryaznoy ("filthy") has courted Marfa, but failed to win her away from Lykov; he purchases a love potion to win her over. His mistress Lyubasha, rejected, sells herself to obtain a poison which she substitutes for the love potion, in jealous vengeance against her rival. Neither contender wins Marfa, because the tsar himself chooses her for his wife, not knowing, of course, that she has already been poisoned. In a dramatic final scene, Gryaznov and Lyubasha make sequential confessions, Gryaznov kills Lyubasha, and Marfa goes mad.
It is a dark story in which the dramatic energy derives from Gryaznov's possessive passion and amoral stratagem. The score is melodic and richly orchestrated, full of long minor-key phrasings that instantly say, "Russian." On the down side, the opera plays out like a series of set pieces rather than with the kind of continuous flow that keeps the action moving forward. The first act aria for the tenor (well sung by Jay Hunter Morris), for example, in which he sings about his travels to Germany, seems to be there more to give the tenor a chance to sing than because it is particularly relevant to the story. The chorus pieces largely seem tacked on, rather than integral to the proceedings.
There was a good deal of accomplished singing and acting by the SFO cast, especially Anna Netrebko's Marfa and Olga Borodina's Lyubasha, both of which might be considered to be definitive interpretations of the roles. The ensemble pieces - the trio in the first act, for example, the quartet in the second, the toast in the third - were beautiful music-making, the balanced and pleasing harmonies finely executed.
But young and dashing Dmitri Hvorostovsky, not so long ago considered one of the most promising baritones on the circuit, turned in a disappointing performance in the pivotal role of Gryaznov. Rather than dashing, he seemed to be indifferently walking through the first act, the voice not projecting, neither passion nor emotion in evidence. Since Gryaznov is the real source of dramatic energy in the story, and is in a central position in the first act, the drama started out flat and never recovered the power it might have had.
Not until the final act did Hvorostovsky project singing of any conviction; then, along with Netrebko's moving mad scene, the drama missing earlier filled the house. But overall it was too little, too late and the melodrama never transcended into heartfelt tragedy. It remains an open question whether, with the baritone fully present for all of his performance, The Tsar's Bride would emerge as a more successfully sustained piece, a more profoundly moving experience of musical theater. The potential seems to be there.
The Washington/SFO production is in a traditional style - a sort of rustic grandness, a rich palette, and handsomely furred and bejeweled costumes. The overall look, though, comes off as rather storybook Russian and it belies the darkness of the drama. The Tsar's Bride cries out for a more expressionistic visual interpretation, a more forbidding atmosphere to enhance the events transpiring onstage. This production seems like an opportunity missed.
San Francisco, September 20, 2000 - Arthur Lazere