Responding to my recent review of Moniuszko’s Halka a keen and knowledgeable reader kindly emailed me a list of other “national operas” including Zhizn’sa Tsarja. My doctor who is both Russian and an opera-lover concurred so “Trove Thursday” offers Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar with Albina Shagimuratova, Alisa Kolosova, Dmytro Popov and Gennadi Bezzubenkov.
In Dvorak’s Dimitrij which like Halka was performed this summer at Bard Summerscape the plot swirls around bad Russians versus good Poles. In Glinka’s opera we have the opposite: as invading Poles threaten, a heroic Ivan Susanin sacrifices himself to save the threatened Tsar. The story had originally been set as an opera by the Italian-born Catterino Cavos who twenty years later would conduct the world premiere of Glinka’s follow-up.
The opera arrived in St. Petersburg at a crucial point in mid-19th century opera: 1836 also saw the first performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as well as Wagner’s Donizetti-flavored, Shakespeare-based Das Liebesverbot but Verdi’s Oberto was still three years off. The opera by Cavos was called Ivan Susanin so Glinka had to retitle his in order to avoid confusion. During the Soviet era however the pro-monarchist slant of the piece didn’t go over so well so it was rechristened Ivan Susanin in an adaptation that sought to blur its subject matter.
Shagimuratova rose to prominence at the Queen of the Night, a role to which she returns for the final time next summer for a new production that opens the Salzburg Festival. A Met Lucia and Konstanze, she visits Chicago in February for I Puritani with Lawrence Brownlee for whom Lyric is borrowing the Met’s dilapidated 42-year-old Ming Cho Lee/Peter J. Hall production!
Married to Marina Rebeka, Popov has sung Rodolfo at the Met the past two seasons and in March will appear in Calixto Bieito’s staging of the Verdi Requiem in Hamburg.
Other than Ramfis, Bezzubenkov has appeared in small roles in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, War and Peace, Boris Godunov and in both runs of the The Nose with the Met. However I’ve heard him in more prominent parts during various Mariinsky Opera tours to New York: in The Demon, Betrothal in a Monastery and as Farlaf in Glinka’s best-known opera Ruslan and Ludmila which premiered six years after A Life for the Tsar.
I asked my doctor what she thought of Ruslan and she waved her hand dismissing it as a lightweight fairy tale adding that she much prefers Zhizn’sa Tsarja! Kolosova appears here in the trouser-role of Vanya, apparently a convention Glinka enjoyed as the role of Ratmir in Ruslan was also written for a mezzo although it’s sometimes taken these days by a countertenor
When the opera is performed outside of Russia it is usually done as a vehicle for a star bass. I first came to know it from a RAI broadcast featuring Boris Christoff (along with Margherita Rinaldi and Viorica Cortez) and of course he stars in the EMI recording with Teresa Stich-Randall and Nicolai Gedda. There are also two other “pirates” in Italian with Christoff, one from an earlier RAI broadcast with Virginia Zeani and one from a stage production in Naples co-starring Adriana Maliponte and Giorgio Casellato-Lamberti.
Opera Orchestra of New York performed it in 1984 for Martti Talvela with Chris Merritt as Sobinin while stage productions over the past several decades in Zurich and Frankfurt featured Matti Salminen and John Tomlinson respectively.
Since we’ve had three 19th century Russian operas on “Trove Thursday” over the past several months, a moratorium will hold for the next few months. So no Christmas Eve by Rimsky-Korsakov next week but instead something completely different.
Glinka: A Life for the Tsar
Radio France Festival, Montpellier
23 July 2012
Albina Shagimuratova — Antonida
Alisa Kolosova – Vanya
Dmytro Popov — Bogdan Sobinin
Gennadi Bezzubenkov — Ivan Susanin
Orchestre Philharmonique & Choeur de Radio France
Alexander Verdernikov — conductor
Glinka’s opera can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on their audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.