Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, 15 April 2011 4.5 stars

Alexander Vinogradov (Malyuta-Skuratov) and Marina Poplavskaya (Marfa) (Photo © Bill Cooper/ROH)As the nation's Kate'n'Wills obsessives brace themselves for this month's Happily Ever After, Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride presents rather different royal wedding preparations. Seen here for the first time ever at the Royal Opera House, the workis directed by Paul Curran in a high-gloss, high-capitalist production, albeit with an equally high body count – and not a commemorative tea towel in sight.

Rimsky's 1899 opera, based on a pseudo-historical drama by Lev Alexandrovich Mey about Ivan the Terrible's brief third marriage (of six), is not for the faint-hearted. In this production's opening scene Grigory Gryaznoy – one of the piece's many villains – nonchalantly dispatches a torture victim before slipping into something a little less blood-stained. But such gruesome machinations are always cloaked in an expensive veneer. Kevin Knight's ultra-contemporary designs ooze nouveau-riche class, from the chrome and red leather fittings of the bar in Act I to the rooftop pool and on-trend retro sunloungers of Act III. Most of the costumes wouldn't look out of place at a formal gathering of Cheshire wives (although the lower orders necessarily remain nondescript and casual) with the Tsar's secret police in the all-black-and-sunglasses uniform of bouncers and bodyguards the world over. As several of the programme book's essays are keen to emphasise, this is, of course, the new Russia.

The irony is that such a setting comes across as expensively international, with only the occasional vodka bottle to remind us of the land of the tsars. Purists may hanker after the heavy fabrics and musty opulence of traditional productions, and the production's main danger lies undoubtedly in emulating too well the upmarket blandness of the luxury hotel and airport lounge (albeit executive class, with the inevitable champagne bar). Matched, though, by a musical performance of impeccable taste, in which the richness of Rimsky's score was always restrained from becoming simply saccharine, the scenic transposition generally worked very well. The ROH Orchestra responded with enthusiasm to Mark Elder's superbly detailed reading: the brass gloriously exuberant, the strings relishing Rimsky's flights of lyricism, and both the beautiful, shimmering textures and the passages of potentially glutinous counterpoint performed with enviable clarity and commitment.

Marina Poplavskaya (Marfa) and Johan Reuter (Gryazanoy) (Photo © Bill Cooper/ROH)Much of the singing was remarkably good, as – more unusually – was the acting. Indeed, in this hyper-real staging (further enhanced by David Martin Jacques' subtle lighting designs) the only singing that stood out as artificial was from the chorus of local residents brought in to sing the Tsar's praises in Act I, a performance complete with three-tenors gestures marshaled by those black-clad heavies. Elsewhere the vocal pyrotechnics were so unobtrusive as to seem almost incidental: Johan Reuter, sounding perfectly at ease in his role debut as Gryaznoy, plumbed the emotional depths of his opening aria with hands in pockets.

The female principals, too, characterized their performances with a poignant show of vocal restraint: Ekaterina Gubanova's Lyubasha was a moving portrayal, her unaccompanied song in Act I particularly memorable for her covered tone, which pointed up the painful intimacy of her 'public' performance. As the eponymous bride, Marfa, Marina Poplavskaya's performance was beautifully sculpted and the making of the opera's climactic final act, her Italianate 'mad scene' controlled to great effect, her tone almost heartbreakingly girlish.

Alexander Vinogradov (Malyuta-Skuratov) and Dmytro Popov (Lïkov) were strong as the Tsar's right-hand man and main (male) victim, Popov's top notes in Act III ringing true even when his heroism, as tightly-buttonedas his waistcoat, didnot. As Bomelius, Vasily Gorshkov was resonant and Anne-Marie Owens, although vocally out-of-sorts, was convincing as the harassed housekeeper; Jurgita Adamonyteand Elizabeth Woollett The Tsar's Bride (Photo © Bill Cooper/ROH)were stylish in their supporting roles.

The one singer who didn't fit the prevailing (and ultimately devastating) tone of self-control was the Georgian Paata Burchuladze as Marfa's father, Sobakin. His massive, earthy bass sounded unwieldy in such polished surrounding – the vocal equivalent of the traditional ceremonial banished almost entirely from this production. But while Burchuladze continued to sound out of place, an older brand of glamour was briefly readmitted to Curran and Knight's vision to extraordinary effect. The final act, the scene for the plot's denouement and unravelling, was set in the Tsar's palace, all sumptuous red and gold: riches, finally, of a more regal variety. But the palatial backdrop was a visible trompe l'oeil, and the walls nauseatingly reflective, as though the truth could only be unveiled in a hall of mirrors. It's certainly no fairytale ending; but it brings to a close a royal wedding that shouldn't be missed.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Bill Cooper/Royal Opera