Cher Public

The Night They Raided Rimsky’s

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.

  • Krunoslav

    Thanks1 Looking forward to hearing it this afternoon.

    I think having Vishenevskaya direct and Rostopovich conduct and Zack Brown design TSAR’S BRIDE wt Washington Opera in 1986 counts as a major staging.

    Cast: Marfa…Elizabeth Knighton; Vasili Sobakin…Stephen Dupont; Grigori Griaznoi…Ivan Konsulov; Ivan Lykov…Vyacheslav Polozov; Lyubasha…Cleopatra Ciurca [no less!] Malyuta…Arnold Voketaitis; Dunyasha…Suzanna Guzman

    • pavel

      And Washington Opera did it again in 1992 with a different cast, including Barbara Madra, a Polish soprano who was flown in when the scheduled Marfa withdrew at the 11th hour.

      • warmke

        She didn’t withdraw. She was, um, withdrawn.

        • Krunoslav

          Who was she????

          A natural for Ljubasha:

          • MontyNostry

            Rula leapt to fame in 1977 in the UK in Rock Follies, a satirical soap about the rise to fame of a three-girl vocal rock group, (Dreamgirls it wasn’t, but I loved it at the time.)
            Rula couldn’t really sing, but she looked good. The lead vocalist of the trio was Julie Covington, who couldn’t sing in tune, but went on to record Evita.
            Here’s an extract from the show, which apparently also featured Tim Curry.


            • armerjacquino

              Covington was the Sarah Brown in the NT Guys and Dolls which was a huge success in the 80s, and the OCA of which was never off the tape player on family holidays when I was a kid. Her duets with the late, great Ian Charleson are utterly gorgeous.

          • Krunoslav

            Oh, I know who RULA was/is!!!!!!

            Who was it who was fired as the DC Marfa is what I wanted to now.

    • Wonderful review, John! I’m having dinner tonight with a friend here in Maine (from NY) who was at last night’s performance and can’t wait to tell me all about it!

      Yes, Krunoslav, that ’86 Zack Brown production still counts as one of the most memorable events of my opera-going experience -- even the revival in ’92 was up there, but having Galina and Slava working diligently on a labor of love and in those amazing sets and costumes, it was a major event.

      I’ve been in an argument with someone railing against that “Bride” saying it was a failure and the press hated it. I couldn’t resist posting Henan’s glowing review for the NY Times, and Bernheimer’s even more glowing review for the LA Times, who called it “the most persuasive thing of its kind this side of the Bolshoi.” I agree (though I’ve never been TO the Bolshoi).

      Washington Opera (before “National” and “Domingo” became a synonymous part of the package) attempted to rent Brown’s production, but sadly found no takers for 14 years until San Francisco (wisely) decided to pick it up and found themselves with a hit on their hands.

  • Great review! This was my first ever Tsar’s Bride and I was blown away by the performance. Here’s my review:

  • phoenix

    Yohalem, thanks VERY MUCH for this -- as well as your “Passenger” -- reviews. The effort you put into your work pays off in the detail that emerges.
    -- In Russia, Tsar’s Bride is more popular than Khovanshchina -- but (with the exception of his last opera, Golden Cockrell) I personally never cared much for Rimski. That is the nature of this beast’s taste -- we are not all the same about everything that is popular. But I did attend several performances of Rimski’s operas in Russia, including Tsar’s Bride, simply because everyone else insisted that I go because they thought his operas were so great. After all that, I’ll still take my personal favorites Khovanshchina, Mazeppa, Prince Igor, Eugen Onegin, Oprichnik, Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) & Boris any day.

  • Amnerees

    Thank you for this splendid review of The Tsar’s Bride. I’ll never understand why Rimsky, with this masterpiece to his credit, considered Snegouroutchka his finest opera (as wonderful as the music is). Its such a relief not to have to endure all the inscrutable fantasy and stock folklore characters of some of his other operas. (I have never been able to figure out what Kitesz is all about, and I’ve often wondered if the composer knew.) Unfortunately, I was out of town during this concert. Maybe now we’ll see another staged performance, though where I don’t know. I’ve never heard a note-complete performance of Tsar’s Bride. Can you recommend a good recording?

  • Opera-lovers who attend too much modern opera may find that it feels like duty.

    From what I have observed, one could just as easily write: “Music critics (or music lovers) who attend too many performances of the usual repertoire may find that it feels like a duty.”

    • (On a side note: If Prokofiev’s “Gambler” was not a public success in New York, then so much the worse for the New York public.)

  • Hippolyte

    Opera Orchestra of New York has done Tsar’s Bride twice both times with Borodina--in 1995 (five years before San Francisco and with Sergei Lieferkus and Nuccia Focile) and again in 2008 with Alexey Markov and Olga Makarina; I attended both. I recall enjoying the 1995 performance, particularly Borodina, but I left the 2008 show at intermission--it just wasn’t doing it for me, a similar reaction I’ve had to other Rimsky operas I’ve attended: Kitezh and Mlada.

    • Camille

      You make me feel so much better with this admission! I left after the second act, as well, but have always blamed it in my generally terrible mood during that time period. Perhaps now I can forgive myself for not listening through and persevering with this opera. Olga gets to do her big number in the last act, as I understand it?

      Finally, the remission of my sin of leaving the opera early quando non ce l’ha faccio più!

      • Camille

        Oh thank you for clarifying that point, herrlich Herr Lick.

        It must have just been my sorry mood du jour, then, after all, and no, I was not in attendance last night, even more sorrily.

        One hopes you will be attending the imminent resurrection of Euryanthe and will have a few words to say on that subject.

        “What do THEY know about it?”, indeed.
        Thank you for that.

      • armerjacquino

        Pedant’s corner: ‘non ce la faccio piu’

        Manou- you’re slipping!

        • manou

          armer -- well spotted but I would be loath to censure Camille as she has already told us that she types like Ashkenazy plays the piano (or maybe she could have said: “I don’t play accurately--any one can play accurately--but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.”).

          • Batty Masetto

            “One, two,” said Lucia. “Three. Now,” and she plunged wildly into a sea of demi-semi-quavers. Olga had just opened her mouth, but shut it again.

            “No,” she said. “Once more,” and she whistled the motif.

            Oh! it’s so diffy!” said Lucia beginning again. “Georgie! Turn over!”

            Georgie turned over, and Lucia counting audibly to herself made an incomparable mess all over the piano.

            Olga turned to her accompanist.

            “Shall I try?” she said.

          • manou

            RUBINSTEIN!!! I meant RUBINSTEIN -- not Ashkenazy.

        • Camille

          Actually, I think Mme manou has FAR greater things to do than cite my spastic errori and her eye is usually set on the glittering jewel of a slip between the cup and the lips that provides a bit of Wildean wit, a bit sorely lacking around here for the most part these days.

          You might also look up the meaning of the phrase as I used it, which is how it flies in conversation, before you set yourself up as docent and guardian of Italian grammar.

          Most obliged you take time out of your career as Social Justice Warrior*, to attend to my grievous grammatical crimes. Instead of wasting your time with picayune and inconsequential trivia, please see my research on Ángeles Gulin, which I made quite an effort to trace out for you, if you will, please, sir. Now that I have looked her up on YouTube, I have found a wealth of materials that convince me she was far better than I’d previously thought.

          *See Urban Dictionary.

          • armerjacquino


            That’s me tellt.

            I offered the ‘correction’ in the joking spirit of pedantry as embodied so elegantly by Mme Manou. I’m not quite sure how I ended up being given quite such a kicking.

            Thanks for the Gulin info.

  • No, Camille. Lybuasha sings her big number in the opening scene. It is Marfa, the title character, who closes things. And it’s all gorgeous (if less so with Queler conducting), so you made a major major error in departing. Especially if you were there last night and missed the wedding sextet AND the Mad Scene.

    Snegouroutchka is second only to Tsar as my favorite Rimsky-Korsakov opera. The Met would have a seasonal hit on their hands if they’d only give it a nice Chagall-fairy tale production. May be painful for those who suffer from meltdown; otherwise, a hit for all ages!

    As for Kitezh, it’s about Russian history, specifically the Major Event in that history that colors everything else: Conquest by the Mongols and the survival of Russian culture under the aegis of the Orthodox Church.

    The last production the Russians brought over rather overdid the history bit, having the city populated by 100 figures from Russian history, all of them perfectly recognizable … if you took eight years of Russian history in school. Otherwise, a mess — they should have followed R-K’s directions. But opera directors HATE to take direction from mere composers. What do they know about it?

    • Hippolyte

      Since the Marfa in 2008 was Olga Makarina who had been mediocre in the first half of the opera, I can thoroughly understand Camille not sticking around (as I too fled) to hear her attempt that scene, gorgeous or no. I remember Focile, on the other hand, being quite good in it in 1995.

    • Camille

      Snegouroutchka, on the other hand, I have been most curious about for the longest time and have always guessed it may have been congenial for Netrebko’s talents, some time ago.

      Perhaps I shall go rooting around in the garden of youtubers for a bit to see……………….

      Well then!! Look what I turned up underneath the snow! A jewel.

      And yes, Nebby’s excerpt is indeed on the YouTube but unavailable to mobile devices, should one want to listen to it.

      • MontyNostry

        There was a production of Snegourochka in London earlier this year -- given by University College Opera, with student orchestra, chorus and comprimari. The piece has its moments, but is one of those very loosely assembled Russian pieces -- a series of tableaux -- and the incidentals seem to take precedence over the essentials. It was certainly an enjoyable show, though.

        • MontyNostry
          • Cicciabella

            Sounds like a production I would have enjoyed, MN. (I must confess I have a soft spot for fairy tales involving snow and ice.) I like the reviewer’s phrase “played with ornithological abandon” to describe the clarinet. In fact, I like the whole, thorough review because, like JY’s review of the Tsar’s Bride above, it emphasises the fun and emotional response to the music. With special recommendation to Basoprofondo, who would absolutely delight in the background information.

      • Milady DeWinter

        How lovely your animated jewel is -- milles mercis, Camille!

  • MontyNostry
    • Camille

      Mucho spasibo, MN dear!

      • MontyNostry

        Pozhalsta, dorogaya Camilla.

  • So did anyone go to this afternoon’s performance?

    • Krunoslav

      I did. It was very good-- wonderful conducting and playing most of all, and a real ensemble effort.

      Shilova fared better in the contralto depths than the very top notes but was very exciting and passionate. Alexiuk-- who went on to sing a fine performance of THE PASSENGER later on that day-- was vey typically Ukranian coloratura, sweet, forward and a bit buzzy on top. A nice save job she did. Kastyanov was imposing ( not just becuse he must be 6′ 5″) if not as varied in color as one might wish.

      The basses and tenors were all very good, Udalova ( a very good house soprano of many years’ standing) held up her part well.

      Alexander Kasiyanov, baritone (Grigory Gryaznoy)
      Nikolay Kazansky, bass (Malyuta Skuratov)
      Roman Shulakov, tenor (Lykov)
      Stanislav Mostovoi, tenor (Bomelius)
      Svetlana Shilova, mezzo-soprano (Lyubasha)
      Uliana Alexyuk, soprano (Marfa)
      Alexandra Chukhina, mezzo-soprano (Dunyasha)
      Anna Matsey, mezzo-soprano (Petrovna)
      Alexander Naumenko, bass (Sobakin)
      Irina Udalova, soprano (Domna Saburova)

      Bravo Rimsky!

      • Oh, great to hear that the Bolshoi could field two great casts. FYI, as a general service announcement, I finally figured out where to sit in AFH: third tier. Acoustics are fantastic up there, way better than in the orchestra, where the sound tends to go dead.

  • bluecabochon

    It was a great weekend of Lincoln Center Festival for me -- The exciting Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki on Friday, thrilling The Tsar’s Bride on Saturday night and the serious and moving The Passenger at the gorgeous Armory on Sunday night. All very different, yet equally compelling.

    The Washington Opera’s Tsar’s Bride in 1986 was a visually stunning event, but I much preferred the electric performance on Saturday night by the Bolshoi.

    I could have sworn that I saw the Mariinsky bring The Tsar’s Bride over in the 1990s at the Met at a previous Festival. Was it an excerpt only in an evening of Russian opera selections? Maybe someone remembers.

    Much has been written about The Passenger and The Tsar’s Bride, so I will put in a word about the Kabuki, which was brilliantly executed in the lovely Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center. They presented a modern interpretation of The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree, starring two young (early 30s) brothers who are running this company after their father’s untimely death two years ago. One brother is a beautiful onnagata (playing women’s roles) and the other is the “star” who played three roles, sometimes simultaneously. The acting style is much more naturalistic and contemporary than I have seen in other Kabuki companies, and there were wonderful performances both dramatic and musical, as well as some skillfully performed quick-changes, a signature of this style of theatre. The Rose is a pretty house but lacked the space for a hanamichi so they played entrances and exits in the aisles, even performing a quick change there. The run seemed very successful, great reviews and the houses were filled (with some beautifully kimono-clad men and women), so they will surely be back again before long. Please try to catch them next time -- they are well worth it!

    The house staff for the Festival at this venue and The Armory were first-class, making sure that people got to where they wanted to go, answering questions, establishing a presence and special-event aura nicely. Can’t say the same for Avery Fisher Hall, who ran out of programs for the uppermost ring and had to scramble to get more in time for the intermission.

    Looking forward to The Sydney Theatre Company’s offering of The Maids next month with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.

  • Ilka Saro

    There are many things to appreciate about this review, not the least of which is the description of Rozhdestvenskii as a “tzaddik”!

  • Krunoslav

    Has anyone remarked that the NY TIMES headline of their review-- and I hasten to add that reviewers there do not write their headlines- is among the worst ever:

    “Mrs.Terrible Before She Met Her Czar Ivan”

    God save us from Generation sub-X sub-irony.

  • Will

    I was at the Sunday matinee of Tsar’s Bride, a big, dynamic, beautifully sung and played performance. Whatever acoustic problems there may gave been on Saturday had been adjusted for--the overture was full of an ominous, surging energy. The solo voices were all solid, mostly round and colorful, and the identification with their characters was all one could hope for. How wonderful to hear real Russian baritones bases and industrial strength mezzos in this music!

    The Passenger in the evening was an amazing theatrical experience, enthusiastically received by the f=virtually sold out audience. Half way through one soprano looked and sounded familiar--amazingly Uliana Alexyuk, the afternoon’s sweet-voiced, expressive Marfa (the Bride of the title) was also in the cast of The Passenger. She has somehow managed to be in the Young Artist Programs of both the Bolshoi and Houston Grand Opera Companies and is thriving in both. More power to her, but it must have been a VERY busy day!

  • The_Kid

    I know I have posted this before, but I just LOVE this movie version of The Tsar’s Bride:

    • The_Kid

      ……..and somehow, I can’t imagine a better Lyubasha than Irina Arkhipova.