There’s nothing wrong with the Royal Opera’s new production of The Tsar’s Bride, and quite a lot that's right, but there’s just not enough in the work itself to make it more than a moderate success.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s score is constantly melodic and always attractive. The folk tune “ Like to the suns in the heavens“, familiar to anyone who knows Boris Godunov or Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, blazes in the Act 1 chorus and then lurks throughout much of the rest of the opera. Ever-present too is a sense of dramatic inertia, which Paul Curran’s efficient, modernized production only starts to overcome.
The simple plot revolves around sexual jealousy and the power of magic potions. The Tsar in question is Ivan the Terrible and the libretto, based on a drama by Lev Alexandrovich Mey, takes real historical events surrounding the mysterious death of Ivan Vasilyevich IV’s third wife and spins it into a folksy fable.
Curran pours as much contemporary relevance into it as he can, setting it in a Mafioso-led modern Moscow, starting promisingly in a swish restaurant, scene of both torture and celebration. Plenty of prostitute acting and tough guy miming follows, something that rarely convinces on the opera stage.
A host of authentic Russian voices – Alexander Vinogradov, Ekaterina Gubanova, Dmytro Popov, Vasily Gorshkov, Marina Poplavskaya and Paata Burchuladze – ensure high standards of singing,
Gubanova as the jilted mistress Lyubasha who sets the tragedy in motion by giving herself to the seedy German (boo hiss) pharmacist Bomelius (Gorshkov) in return for poison, is a stand-out. Her unaccompanied song of sorrow in Act 1 is the highlight of the whole evening, and tenor Popov impresses too, especially in his third act outpouring, delivered here on the diving board of a swanky city swimming pool. Poplavskaya’s moment comes in the final scene, when she’s required to stagger around the stage Lucia-like before expiring in a state of trance-like madness.
Danish baritone Johan Reuter lends greater sympathy to the secret policeman Gryaznoy than might be expected, despite a grisly opening scene where he bundles the body of a torture victim from under his guests’ noses like so much dirty laundry.
Kevin Knight’s sets, one for each act, are functional and diminishingly effective, the photographic backdrops of acts 3 and 4 looking cheap and the final palace scene positively garish. Act 2 is a particularly grubby Moscow street and one can only assume that the wealthy merchant Sobakin moves to a classier neighbourhood once his daughter becomes Tsarina. Much of the look is at odds with the lush romanticism of the music, which Mark Elder conducts with his usual drive and grace.
I’d hazard a guess that most people will enjoy the evening, and many will welcome something completely new in the programme (these are the opera’s first ever performances at the Royal Opera House), but The Tsar’s Bride is unlikely to make it onto anyone’s list of operatic highlights of the year.
- Simon Thomas