Power, technology and sex in
Rimsky Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
In a studio of a highly technological Russia, a film is being made of The Tsar's Bride. It is not clear whether it is the 1849 Lev Alexandrovi tragedy based on the pattern of Shakespeare's Histories or the 1899 opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov on a libretto by Ilya Tyumenev. The shooting of the movie is interrupted. After a rich exchange of emails and tweets, the bosses of the local mafia hold a major meeting in a conference room near the studio. The country is rapidly going downhill and risks falling apart. There is the need for a charismatic leader to keep it together. They decide on a manufactured, highly media-friendly leader, an avatar, always present on TV, cell phones and iPads, but unreal. As the leader needs a 'first lady', she is to be searched for amongst all the attractive young single Russian girls. Later, the mafia would decide how to manufacture a child too. The Russian mafia bosses drink heavily, mistreat their long-time mistresses to replace them with younger ladies, and search for new weapons and similar tools in nearby Germany. Their chief, Gryaznoy, stabs his own mistress to death, poisons (by mistake, with a German potion) the young girl he wants to have sex with, after having killed the young man she would have liked to marry. Meantime, the girl has been chosen by the fictional Tsar as his bride. Thus, Gryaznoy has no choice but to commit suicide. And this while other troubles are also in sight for Russia.
This is The Tsar's Bride I heard and saw at its 2 March 2014 premiere at La Scala, a co-production with the Berlin Staatsoper unter den Linden where it has entered the repertory successfully. The Tsar's Bride is often played in Russia and Germany but it had never previously been performed in Milan. Elsewhere in Italy, however, over the last thirty years, I recall performances in Rome and in Catania. In Rome, the production had been imported from the Washington Opera; the stage direction had been entrusted to Galina Visnevskaya and the sets and costumes to Zack Brown. Mstislav Rostropovich was in the pit. The opera was seen as a colossal historical pageantry, clearly set in 1572. In Catania, production and singers had been imported from the small but innovative Moscow Helikon Theatre. Dmitri Bertman was the mastermind; with very limited means, he was able to marry tradition and innovation and to give a timeless meaning to The Tsar's Bride.
In this La Scala-Staatsoper production, Dmitri Tcherniakov signs the dramaturgy and sets, the costumes are by Elena Zaytseva, Gelb Filshtinsky produces the lighting and the videos are by Raketa Media. Daniel Barenboim is in the pit. No doubt, there is very strong team work. In order to keep the tension high, Barenboim does not expand the tempos (as he usually does) but tightens them. Also a folkloristic chorus in the first act is cut. The intention is clear: to show a senseless cruel orgy of power, technology and sex in a country doomed to self destruction. It is fair to say that this was Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's intention. In spite of the composer's fame and the importance of this opera in the 'Italian style' (with musical numbers, arias, duets, quartets and alike), broadly patterned on Verdi's La Forza del Destino, The Tsar's Bride was not premiered in one of the Imperial Theatres but in a small private secondary theatre in Moscow. The Board of Censors knew that it contained dynamite.
This production ignites the dynamite as it shows a corrupt, perverted, lurid ruling class that destroys all the elements for renewal, ie the young girl, her boyfriend and her family. A hopeless picture. Especially in the days when Eastern Europe is going through major sufferings.
The chorus, directed by Bruno Casoni, deserves a special mention; they are one of the protagonists and handle the Russian language very well. In the large cast, the women's voices are most impressive, especially Olga Peretyatko (Marfa, the young girl) and Marina Prudenskaya (Lyubasha, Gryaznoy's older mistress). Among the men Johannes Martin Kränzel is an excellent Gryaznoy. Anatoly Kotscherga (Marfa's father) seemed slightly tired; at La Scala there is still a vivid memory of his Boris Godunov with Claudio Abbado in the pit). Tobias Schabel (Likov, Marfa's boyfriend) has a generous volume but the role might be better interpreted with a more velvet voice. In spite of these imperfections, this was a truly memorable evening.
Copyright © 10 March 2014 Giuseppe Pennisi,