The first ever production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride has had some interesting reviews. And have to confess that the main reason for seeing it was to witness a live performance by Marina Poplavskaya, a singer that I have systematically avoided in the last five years, put off by her woolly Italian singing in televised and radio broadcast performances. If nothing else it was a great chance to see her sing in her native tongue!
Let me be clear from the outset, I found Rimsky-Korsakov’s music pretty much forgettable and really not sophisticated enough to grace the stage of a major Opera House. Mark Elder and his beautiful conducting, and the alert and responsive orchestra could not disguise the really thin and plodding music that Rimsky endowed them with.
This performance may have not turned me into a fan of the composer but it made an interesting impact, I thought that the contemporary staging of the piece really benefited the action. Had they kept the 16th century setting it would have made for a very miserable night at the ROH. The addition of the Mafia and the salubrious settings gave the piece an interesting dark veneer that has a lot in common both with story itself and the world around us. Paul Curran was not exercising a self indulgent directorial streak by transferring the action, he was adding another layer of meaning that gave the work more relevance and interest.
The restaurant setting allowed for an intriguing meeting of bourgeoisie surroundings and criminality to co exist and cross fertilise. Remember reading tweets about the lack of smoking in this part that was deemed to detract from the apparent pursuit of realism. Well, interestingly there were at least two members of the chorus that were sporting cigarettes in addition to a drug transaction in the foreground. Johan Reuter was the early star of the act with convincing acting and a bright timbre that made him the centre of all the action. It was at this maelstrom of butch masculinity that Lyubasha, as portrayed by Ekaterina Gubanova was sucked into. Her melancholic peasant song shone with confidence and an obvious need for approval and male attention. She was needy and proud, a combination difficult to pull of but she did do it with gusto. Unfortunately the guy seating in front of me fell asleep and missed most of her part in this act…a great loss indeed.
Brought the first appearance of Marfa (portayed by Marina Poplavskaya) at the back of the restaurant, merrily dancing around and fooling about with her best friend Dunyasha (Jurgita Adamonyte). The acting side of the scene was beautifully conveyed and both singers sang with feeling and merry abandon. Luybasha’s entry and the gang circling created an end of an era feel, prefiguring the tragic finale. The scene between Bomelius (Vasily Gorshkov) and Luybasha was one of the highlights of the night as Gubanova was singing some of the best vocal writing by the composer, while acting her socks off against a mountain of a man. This transaction that was the stuff of folklore and myth (a poison to make Marfa ugly and thus undesirable to Gryaznoy, her lover) became much more real and sleazy. A mix of necessity, jealousy and malice. A mix of feelings that brought her character more into life and her rivalry with Marfa into sharp focus. She was the scorned lover wanting revenge against the almost virginal purity of the object of affection. A situation that quite a few members of the audience must have had to deal with at some stage of their live, hopefully minus the use of poison. It was truly disappointing the deafening silence after Gubanova’s scena. A bizarre reaction that will remain a mystery.
After the interval we were treated to a marvellous set depicting an oligarch’s penthouse apartment complete with pool and mega skyscrapers being built in the distance on the photographic backcloth. It was a decadent setting for a sharp turn to the plot. We begin with the declaration of the nuptials between Marfa and Likov. After some male bonding between Likov (vividly sang by Dmytro Popov) and Gryaznoy the arrival of Marfa seemed awkward and she looked a bit lost till she had to sing her passionate lovers’ duet with Likov. In my view he stole the show by declaring his love on the diving board and a neat touch was presenting her the wedding ring in a trademark green Tiffany box. The announcement that she is selected to be the Tsar’s Bride comes as if the whole weight of the universe has fallen on our protagonists’ shoulders. The close of the act brings us to a full circle from extreme happiness to profound despair and helplessness.
The backdrop is a shiny photo reproduction of a gilt panelled room with a racked red velvet covered floor. And as if to help the singers project (especially Marfa in all her weakness) the stage is much more enclosed space (see detail of set in picture collage above). Reuter is heartbreaking admitting that he poured the potion in the Tsarina’s drink but is cut short by Lyubasha rushing in to admit that she swapped the love potion with her poison. Gubanova was extremely passionate, being every bit the desperate woman. A totally outstanding contribution, that infuriated me that it did not get applauded! The only staging anomaly came from Reuter stabbing her straight in her abdomen while the chorus was describing the knife going through her heart. A silly disconnect but easily understandable under the pressure of the passionate exchange between the two singers. Marfa’s portrayal was as a demented jilted bride. Poplavskaya’s demeanour and physical appearance was a good match, but dramatically something was missing. I had the nagging feeling that she was controlling the character too much, that her madness was over analysed. Especially against the emotional volcano of Gubanova’s portrayal she had to give her Tsarina a little bit more substance. Adding to this, the extremely thin orchestration, the finale lacked in satisfaction and catharsis. Curran allowing for Marfa to have her throat cut in the last seconds of the opera was a great spark of showmanship, but it was a shame we did not feel too much empathy for her trials.
I can happily report that Gubanova, Popov and Reuter got the loudest applause on the night. Poplavskaya appearing a bit sour and actually not getting such a loud applause, I just wanted to scream at her “you should be enjoying yourself more”. As her vocal performance and some of her acting were very convincing, I still think her voice is missing that all important bloom when she’s reaching for her higher register. But she is a promising force if she allows herself to develop more, dramatically.
In conclusion this was an interesting evening with some really stimulating action on stage. The great conducting by Mark Elder was ultimately betrayed by the sheer lack of stellar music. It may be one of the gems of Russian opera but in my view it really cannot stand next to any accomplished opera by Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi. It was lacking the characterful qualities of Italian bel canto and at the same time it failed to offer a distinctive alternative as a showcase of the Russian school, the establishment of which was Rimsky-Korsakov’s obsession. Finally I would like to see a lot more of Paul Curran in the directorial seat at the Royal Opera, his contribution was really wonderful.