While Rimsky-Korsakov’s the Tsar’s Bride (1899) has always been a popular resident in the Russian operatic repertoire, it rarely appears in the West because audiences who rely on translations of the Russian libretto cannot appreciate the eloquent sonority of the opera, especially the artful adaptation of Russian language to Western harmony—an immensely difficult feat mastered by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The music of this masterpiece opera remains quite arresting. Another obstacle in the West concerning the work’s appreciation may be that the plot satirizes the popular Celtic-Germanic romantic myth of the love potion through a plot of complicated intrigue, thus de-Romanticizing the tragedy and replacing the myth with brutal court intrigue that dramatizes moral corruption around the theme of lust rationalized as love. The plot presents a mirrored doubling of love potion and death potion along with the time-worn switch of poisons.
Despite this melodrama, the opera offers an interesting folkloric rebuke of Wagner’s landmark chromaticism in his Tristan und Isolde (1865). Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera becomes a parody on Western naiveté concerning love and politics. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Realism in this opera should be contextualized within the international Naturalism movement of Gustav Flaubert, Emile Zola, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the American novelists William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris.
On another level the story has some similarity to the Helen of Troy motif and the Judas Iscariot story. Yet this remains an opera that is about wonderful music and gorgeous singing. The overture belongs in those anthology discs of best 12 opera overtures, etc.
Rimsky-Korsakov wanted to accomplish two strands: overdo Donizetti’s soprano lyric arias and offer authentic Russian chorale music. This is pastiche, yet there is nothing wrong with pastiche, if it is done well, which is the case here. One might sensibly argue that perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov equaled Donizetti in one lyrical aria marvelously sung by soprano Lyubov Petrova as Marfa. (Russian opera is justly famous for bass singing and Rimsky-Korsakov aimed to bring Italian soprano singing to Russian audiences.) Efim Zavalny as the villainous baritone, Grozhniy, was simply superb. Tenor Gerard Schneider as the naïve lover was quite eloquent, suave, and believable; bass-baritone Andrey Valentiy as the evil German doctor was excellent. The large chorus under James Bagwell’s direction was sturdy and robust with diatonic edges. The trumpets heralded the brutal oprichniki who were similar to Stalin's terrifying Cheka.
That is not to say that everything went well. The boring set of benches pleaded budget poverty, yet how much can one spend on sets for a single night’s production? The modern costuming was negligent in bestowing an air of Russian culture as well as colorless. One wondered if the imported male singers from abroad were merely wearing the clothes they arrived with. (I don't object to modern costuming because it pointedly hints at American contemporary political problems.) The high-tech visual design was top-notch, except for the ruffling of the red curtains on which libretto translations were placed (which made the translations hard to read). Scenic drop-downs were memorably effective as well as aesthetically pleasing. Directorial blocking was occasionally awkward and stilted.
But the opera was really about the sonority of musical color (Rimsky-Korsakov’s octatonic scale) in both folk singing and art song. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out, Rimsky-Korsakov’s subsequent retreat into operatic fantasy was a safe journey away from both history and Realism. As prelude to the concert, Taruskin was awarded an honorary doctorate from Bard College by Leon Botstein (who conducted the orchestra in the pit with energetic aplomb). Rimsky-Korsakov himself thought that his two best operas were Tsar’s Bride and Snow Maiden (which Marina Frolova noted in her lively preconcert lecture), while many critics will argue for Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh for the latter spot.
This tragic opera exuded the characteristic Manicheanism of Russian culture amid emotional turmoil over the few choices life bestows. Perhaps Rimsky-Korsakov thought this tragic descent into Greek pathos could not be pushed any further, or that he had had overindulged himself with Western styles in Tsar’s Bride. After brief discussion of the Tsar’s Bride premiere in his autobiography, he bemoans among his younger music pupils “signs of decadence wafted from Western Europe.” And he was unnerved by student unrest. So Rimsky-Korsakov returned to his obsession with symmetry in the guise of fairy tales that could be more easily and safely molded and marketed. And yet the portrayal of the Tsar’s tyranny in the opera may be seen as prophetic of Joseph Stalin. Some of this sensibility was recently captured in a production staged at the Berlin Staatsoper and recorded on DVD by Bel Air (2013).
This bold and exciting production of Tsar’s Bride was sold out; a two-day weekend performance might have satisfied a larger audience. Might another company adopt this production under a director more familiar with Russian culture?