Michael Tanner

Russian revenge | 23 April 2011

The Tsar’s Bride is Rimsky-Korsakov’s tenth opera, give or take various versions of some previous ones, but you’d never guess it.

The Tsar’s Bride is Rimsky-Korsakov’s tenth opera, give or take various versions of some previous ones, but you’d never guess it.

The Tsar’s Bride is Rimsky-Korsakov’s tenth opera, give or take various versions of some previous ones, but you’d never guess it. The production at the Royal Opera, which is exemplary in most respects, suggests a fairly talented newcomer to the genre, who isn’t yet in a position to boss his librettist around in the necessary ways.

The Overture sets no scene, and is anyway tiresome and undistinguished; there are lots of stereotypical choral scenes; the central set of characters and their motivations sometimes get submerged in superfluous sidelines. But, worse, the music meanders in strange ways, much of it is anonymous and not even vaguely ‘Russian’ in feeling — not surprising, since Rimsky was, we are told, reacting against musical nationalism, and finally able, thanks to the death of his long-time rival Tchaikovsky, to adopt a ‘Western’ idiom and even up to a point to model his work on The Queen of Spades. But whatever he was up to, one might expect such a consummate professional as Rimsky to know how to sustain musical dramatic tension. But here, despite a plot full of lurid scheming and plausibly desperate behaviour, the musical textures sometimes seem absent-minded in their irrelevance and thinness, and you wouldn’t know, if you were only listening to it, when the dramatic climaxes occur.

Paul Curran, who directs this new account, has chosen to update the action from Ivan the Terrible’s reign to the present. No surprise there. We are told, though I don’t think we need to be, that Russia is as corrupt now as it was then, a dangerous place to live if you have ambitions, especially of a political or erotic kind.

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