Something old, something new for the Tsar’s Bride

For all its engaging lyricism, and a good thump of melodrama, it’s telling that I haven’t really been able to work up the enthusiasm to blog thoughts on the Tsar’s Bride.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, which has just run its course at Covent Garden, is perhaps a little more flimsy than it had originally sruck me, dazzled as I was by the resources lavished upon it.

Slow-acting poisons, tsars and tsarinas, secret police, credence given to love potions, it’s all a bit flimsy.  It’s all the more surprising, then, that the modern update by Paul Curran (to a contemporary, mafia-run Moscow) worked so well.  Yes, you had to set aside a few bits of clunky libretto – especially the belief in love potions, and references to the Tsar by name – but these people are faintly preposterous anyway, so why not?  Marina Frolova-Walker’s programme essay starts out by noting that the works of the original playwrite, Lev Mey, were thought outdated by the late 19th century, even as Rimsky-Korksakov was staking his operatic reputation on them, so a bit of liberty in the setting is likely to do good in restoring a bit of piquancy to an otherwise fusty story.  I’m sure if there had been ‘authentic’ 16th century costumes and settings, I’d be writing about being considerably more bored than I actually was.

The sets were quite remarkable, really.  A restaurant and party venue for Act 1, a seedy backstreet for the meeting with the drug dealer in Act 2 and a spectacular rooftop scene, complete with pool and twinkling skyscraper backdrop, for Act 3.  The major gripe was that it was difficult to trace who was singing in Act 1, what with the gloom and the general preponderance of similar-looking men and the busy restaurant set.  Otherwise though, it kept things moving along.

Characterisations were detail and committed, and admirable in the context of the proposed setting.  I particularly enjoyed Johan Reuter’s richly sung, bullying and slowly-collapsing Grigory, and Ekaterina Gubanova’s forthright and tarty Lyubasha (in many ways, the star of the night).  Elizabeth Woollett injected some comedy with the drunken portrayal – à la Carol Burnett – of Domna Ivanovna, Dunyasha’s Mother.  As I write this, I’m reminded that part of the problem was that there were so many seemingly similarly-named characters milling around at some points, I totally lost who was who and what was what.  I wasn’t entirely sure about Marina Poplavskaya’s Marfa:  she brought some real intensity and panic to the moment when the Tsar’s messenger brings the news of her selection as Tsarina, and did what she could with a frankly preposterous – and long – mad scene, but it didn’t thrill or move me vocally.  I’ve always been quite an admirer of her strong, incisive tone, but on this occasion she sounded a little more uneven, with the higher reaches just a bit more pinched and lacking in gleam.

The orchestra gave sumptuousness and tumult in good measure.  Mark Elder kept things at a good clip; but, diverting as it was, and nice though it is to see something new to the locality, it’s not a score I’ll be rushing back to any time soon.

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