Friday, 15 April 2011
The Tsar's Bride, Royal Opera House
(animation by Si Clark)
With this production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, the Royal Opera shows commendable nerve. The show is a sumptuous, four set, present-day updating which draws the autocratic rule of the Tsar full circle with the current oligarchy. A mob in designer black parade their entitlement ostentatiously and often with a gun in hand - the people are hassled into complaint groups, sandwiched fiscally as much as physically between sale notices and mobile phones. Their Western clothes, collectively, look peasant-grey. Even the final wedding scene looks tacky, new money managing a uniform colour but no sense of class.
The effect of all this is to magnify the pity one feels for the genuine human dramas that constitute the opera. Those characters that do connect find expression in the folk-inflected sections, like Lyubasha's unaccompanied song directed at Grigory, or Marfa and Ivan's duet - music that reaches past the strutting surface to grasp at something more substantial. The ephemeral is rendered as just that, superfluous and cheap.
The aforementioned trio have the burden of the drama to bear and require singers who are anything but cheap. Ekaterina Gubanova's Lyubasha is a deeply proud woman, a rich, strident mezzo-soprano with just enough insecurity in the sound to correctly play the character. A young Borodina, dare I suggest? Dmitry Popov's Ivan is her tenor counterpart, supple and open-throated, the clean, fresh sound of the idealist lover. Marina Poplavskaya is more familiar to Covent Garden and by the mad scene-Liebestod of the final act she was into her stride (although the road to this point was rocky). Making all the problems is Johan Reuter's Grigory, also a familiar face confidently nailing his opening aria before almost anyone else has had a chance to get onto the stage alongside him. Other roles are well taken - I particulalry liked the bass Alexander Vinogradov (Malyuta-Skuratov), a young singer we will hear plenty more of in the future. At the other end of the food chain, I might also mention Andrew O'Connor's 'Young Lad' cameo in the second act. These three-line roles are tricky enough at the best of times but one could discern every word of the text. Not bad when on stage with high calibre, native Russian singers.
Under Mark Elder the Covent Garden Orchestra play with a tight, light ensemble touch, serving the music, supporting the singers. It does seem a little inconsequential at times. For all that Rimsky-Korsakov claimed to be reacting against the suffocating influence of Wagner in this work, there are passages that can't detach themselves from harmonic and orchestral gravitation in that direction. Certainly the piece comes into its own when it gives the singers a platform for voiced melodrama, rather than trying to force the issue directly from the pit. Following the curio of The Gambler this is a more worthwhile forré into less familiar Russian repertory.