Opera-lovers who attend too much modern opera may find that it feels like duty. There are fine voices, there are good actors, there are intricate orchestrations, there are politically relevant themes—isn’t that why people go to the opera? Or isn’t it?
But where is joy in this music? Where is a score so full of magic that the heart soars on wings of melody, as archetypal figures love, hate, conspire, poison, torture, stab, warble their way into our hearts? Where is delight? Where is inspiration? Where is the audience ecstatic with adulation and astonishment at the revelation of a great unknown score? Where are the tunes so captivating that we float home on a magic carpet of melody?
Saturday night, two days after emotionally draining but musically puzzling us with Weinberg’s spiky Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, the Lincoln Center Festival presented the forces of the Bolshoi Opera at Avery Fisher Hall in the first of two concert performances of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride. This was an event to make any opera-lover delirious, the pleasure of a rare score by one of nineteenth-century grand opera’s most able and less lauded geniuses, an opera beloved all over Russia but hardly known over here.
Popular at home since its 1899 premiere, Tsar’s Bride has not been staged in New York since 1922 and has never appeared at the Met (or the City Opera, which gave Prince Igor and Le Coq d’Or), nor has it been brought to New York by any of the Russian companies who have come here in recent years. It is difficult to understand why.
In 1911, Diaghilev introduced Tsar’s Bride to Paris, along with Boris Godunov, Khovantschina and Prince Igor, but it was those latter ungainly dramas (none of which would have reached the stage to begin with if not for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “completions” and orchestrations) that drew the attention, perhaps suiting the West European taste for barbaric sounds. (Tsar’s Bride boasts a wedding sextet and a coloratura Mad Scene—how barbaric can it be?) Boris and Igor moved on (without Diaghilev) to the Metropolitan, in Italian because the Met’s chorus could not read, much less pronounce, Russian.
In subsequent decades, the Met’s impresario, Gatti-Casazza, introduced three of Rimsky’s mythic fables, Le Coq d’Or, Snegouroutchka and Sadko (all in French), and such melodies as the “Song of India” from Sadko, the Queen’s Hymn to the Sun from Coq d’Or and the “Flight of the Bumblebee” from Tsar Saltan became “classical standards.” By those tunes and not his enormous full-length dramas, Rimsky was known around these parts.
Even when Russian opera companies began to visit New York regularly forty years ago, they chose Rimsky’s Invisible City of Kitezh or Mlada—even Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery and Semyon Kotko and Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans were thought better bets than Bride. Its only major American staging took place in 2000, when the visionary and Russophile Lotfi Mansouri gave Tsar’s Bride a sumptuous production in San Francisco with the sumptuous casting of brand new stars ideal for their roles: Anna Netrebko as Marfa, Olga Borodina as Lyubasha, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Gryaznoy. In that year, for those singers, any audience in the world—certainly New York’s—would have torn the house apart, but the Met management gave The Gambler and Mazeppa instead, neither of them a popular triumph.
Perhaps Tsar’s Bride is too long, although it is no longer than Khovantshchina or Prince Igor and has a far more comprehensible plot. The story is sort of a La Gioconda taken from ever-sanguinary Russian history: Gryaznoy, an egotistical nobleman, has fallen in love with Marfa, daughter of the merchant Sobatkin. But she is in love with her childhood sweetheart, the naïve Lykov. Ignoring ethics and everything else that stands in his way, Gryaznoy, a very Russian character, persuades the sinister Dr. Bomelius, Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s German alchemist, to sell him a potion that will make Marfa fall in love with Gryaznoy.
However, Gryaznoy’s plots have been overheard by his lover, Lyubasha, a tribal girl he picked up on the steppes when engaged in wiping out her family. Lyubasha has nothing in life but her passion for Gryaznoy, her beauty and one of those killer Russian contralto voices. She begs Bomelius for another potion, one that will destroy Marfa’s good looks. He sells her this—for a price. (You’ve been to a lot of opera; you know what his price turns out to be.)
Lyubasha switches the potions and Gryaznoy gets Marfa to drink it while she pledges herself to Lykov—but at that very instant, while we’re all wondering what effect the drink will have, a messenger arrives from no one less than Tsar Ivan, who has decided to marry Marfa himself. In the next, last, scene, Marfa has gone mad, Gryaznoy has accused Lykov of poisoning her and the poor boy has been tortured to death. Gryaznoy confesses his crimes whereupon Lyubasha confesses switching potions and he stabs her. She’s grateful, and considering what Tsar Ivan will now do to everybody left alive, she should be. And Marfa sings a mad scene, a lovely, ethereal tune that contrasts nicely with the ruin and wrack around her.
Last night, tiny, long-haired, 83-year-old veteran maestro Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, with the radiant smile of a Russian tzaddik, conducted the enormous score. It took him and the Bolshoi Opera Orchestra some minutes to figure out Avery Fisher Hall’s infamous acoustics—there was a lot of unbalanced thumping and some out-of-tune string playing during the overture, and rhythms were rather sluggish throughout the two hours (yes!) of Acts I and II (no intermission till Act III).
Those familiar with, say, the excellent black-and-white Sovietfilm version of the opera, swiftly paced and omitting about an hour’s worth of music (including both of poor Lykov’s tenor arias as well as the gorgeous wedding sextet), may have been alarmed at how the score ran on. And on. Every change in the Moscow summer weather seemed to call for at least a trio of comment.
But it’s all so beautiful! Not just the individual numbers, Lyubasha’s famous aria, the scenic choruses, the naïve love duets, the wedding celebrations, but the fabric of stray melodious fragments against which conversations play out. It’s not just arioso, dreary sung dialogue, as in so many modern operas; it’s a symphony in which conversation is song. We sat there slack-jawed in wonder. Why can’t more opera be like this?
Tsar’s Bride is so popular that the Bolshoi easily fielded two entirely different casts, one for last night, the other this afternoon. On Saturday night, Elchin Azizov, the Gryaznoy, may have lacked the sensual, insinuating grace of a Hvorostovsky but projected his character’s insane determination, the passion that drives the machine of the plot, with a dark, grainy, intriguing sound, well-focused from growling bottom to soaring top. Oleg Tsybulko, a slim, strapping basso, made a proper Malyuta, Gryaznoy’s shadow and Tsar Ivan’s factotum among the Oprichniki.
Bogdan Volkov, a tall tenor with a high but firm lyric voice, earned admiring attention as the artless Lykov. Marat Gali conveyed greasy foreign lust as the sinister Bomelius. Vladimir Matorin sang Marfa’s father, Sobatkin, with a huge woolly basso of the sort all Russian opera requires, making him an ideal commentator on the action, whether things were going well or hideously awry, as they do in this opera.
Among the ladies, Olga Kulchynska sang Marfa’s artless and ethereal music with sure technique and winning appeal, but her thunder was rather stolen (as will happen when any decent contralto sings Lyubasha) by Agunda Kulaeva. It is not just that Lyubasha’s arias are more beautiful than Marfa’s elegiac Mad Scene; it is that Lyubasha appears (if she’s any good) to be wrenching her soul apart to show you her throbbing heart. Kulaeva’s murmurous low registers seemed to summon the earth to witness the pain in her deep Central Asian soul. It’s a star-making part, and Kulaeva, a pretty woman to boot, drew especial raptures. Elena Novak was charming as Marfa’s buddy, Dunyasha, and Irina Rubtsova sang Marfa’s mother, the robust housewife Domna, with satisfying power.
Three leads, yes, but nine big roles: Perhaps that’s what scares the Met about attempting this opera. But fine Russian singers are a dime a dozen these days. It could be done. It would be a hell of a lot more satisfying than The Nose or The Gambler or Iolanta, a great deal more comprehensible than the chaotic Prince Igor.
The Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, once they hit their stride, glided through three and a half hours of music with panache, and the Chorus impersonated Oprichniki and wedding guests enthusiastically. Rozhdestvenko and Rimsky-Korsakov were cheered to the rafters. The latter, who attended a performance of Faust in New York during his years as a naval cadet, would no doubt have been thrilled at the response of this packed house.