Tsar's Bride - The Bolshoi Ride Into Town

There are certain works of art that for some reason hardly ever make the trip out of their homeland. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride has been relegated into that basket.   It's a regular in Russian opera companies but except for a recent La Scala production and a San Francisco production in 2000, the opera remains a Russian house special. Tonight the Bolshoi Opera brought this beautiful work for the first of two performance at Avery Fisher Hall.

The storyline is melodramatic -- it's loosely based on a rather dark little corner of Russian history when Ivan the Terrible decided he was going to roam the country for a bride, whittled his selection to 12 candidates, and the unfortunate final choice was a girl named Marfa Sobakina. The poor thing died under mysterious circumstances a few days later. Tsar's Bride gives Marfa a backstory -- a vapid tenor lover, a jealous baritone suitor, and an even more jealous mezzo rival. Is this starting to sound familiar?

However, it's not a cheesy bit of exotica, as in great to view once but once is enough. Sometimes you can understand why works resists exportation. Why Tsar's Bride has remained homebound is a mystery. It's one beautiful opera. The score is magnificent. The melodies are lush and instantly memorable, and the orchestration and chorus have enough Russian heaviness to lend some gravitas to this otherwise conventional love quadrangle. You realize you've heard these tunes before -- must have been in the background of some movie or documentary. The whole thing even ends with a magnificent mad scene for the soprano. But the thing about this opera is that you need great voices, and many of them -- in that sense, it's very much like a Verdi opera.

Here is Marfa's Mad Scene, sung by a very young Anna Netrebko:

I don't have many points of comparison for Tsar's Bride. Tonight was my first performance ever. But since this was performed by one troupe (the Bolshoi) it was fascinating to see how even in one company, there are the world class voices, the solid house singers, and the provincials. In the "world class" league was Aguna Kulaeva (Lyubasha, the psycho jealous mezzo villainess), who has a voice like a young Olga Borodina and also has charisma to burn. She's pictured on the left. The singers were all bunched in an awkward tight semi-circle in the center-back of the stage. But when Kulaeva stood up to sing, you know the Diva Had Spoken. Her raven hair matched her magnificent black gown. And talk about a stage face -- I was sitting in the wee corner of the third tier and I could sense her blazing intensity. And her voice had so much beauty and soul that somehow you felt Lyubasha's actions were completely just, proper, and sympathetic. Her a cappella aria was heartrending. You felt her pain. She was amazing. In the second half of the opera she delayed her entrance until after the soloists had taken their seats, and the audience gave her an ovation. She smirked.

Here is a youtube clip I found of this Diva:

On the other end of the world class spectrum was the very young soprano Olga Kulchinskaya (Marfa). She looks and sounds exactly like Marfa should sound: young and pretty and fresh. Her voice was bell-like, ethereal, and in the extended mad scene that ends the opera, truly celestial as it traveled through the cavernous orchestra hall. Since she is so young what she hasn't quite learned to do is to project her face to the audience -- she sometimes looked a bit blank and buried in the score. But quite a voice.

Vladimir Matorin (Vasily) and Elchin Azizov (Grigory) were also excellent lower voices. My friend Jan said that Matorin is one of those people who sounds exactly like he looks. So true. He has the scruffy gray beard that just says "Russian black bass." But it's a very warm sound. Elchin Azizov also has a fairly warm, rich baritone that lended a layer of humanity to the role of Grigory. Of the lead singers only the Ivan (Bogdan Volkov) was at a slightly lower level -- his tenor sounded occasionally tight and constricted. Ivan's kind of a vapid part, so no real loss there.

The supporting players were all solid to excellent. Marat Gali as Bornelius chewed the scenery as another villain and Elena Novak as Marfa's friend was more than good. The Bolshoi chorus and orchestra were remarkable. Conventional wisdom says that the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra are the "world class" company and that the Bolshoi is meant to stay in Russia. But conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, at the age of 83, still had superb command of the orchestra and chorus. He was remarkable to watch, as he thundered his stick at certain sections of the orchestra and they thundered back at him. And he had such authority that the audience seemed afraid to clap until he gave the okay to clap. At the opera ended the old man turned around on his seat and nodded at the audience. The audience burst into a thunderous happy ovation. The singers milked their ovations like true Russians, but it was absolutely deserved.

In fact, the whole event was unexpectedly classy. I say this only because sometimes Lincoln Center Festival events tend to be midsummer tourist traps, with the actual quality of art being variable. The Bolshoi Ballet (the more well-known, flamboyant cousin to the Bolshoi Opera) is set to begin a two-week stay at the Koch Theater performing the overstuffed and overdone staples of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Spartacus. But the audience for tonight's performance were real opera enthusiasts. The presentation was completely thorough and professional -- David Shengold's liner notes were excellent reading. You didn't get a sense that anyone was there just to be seen. And the Bolshoi Opera gifted us with an amazing performance of an opera that, as I said, as of now remains thoroughly Russian and not to be exported.


  1. Actually Eve Queler programmed "The Tsar's Bride" twice with her Opera Orchestra of New York - in 1995 and 2008. Both concerts starred Olga Borodina as Lyubasha.


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