Bolshoi Opera brings Russian rarity to Lincoln Center Festival with Rimsky’s “Tsar’s Bride”
A packed Avery Fisher Hall was assembled on Saturday night for a pair of rare New York sightings.
The first was the Bolshoi Opera and Chorus, giving its first performances ever in the city; and the second was its offering for the evening, a concert version of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, last seen locally at Carnegie Hall in 2008. Saturday’s event was part of the Bolshoi’s month-long residency at the Lincoln Center Festival, which will stage three full-length ballets in addition to the opera over the course of July.
Based on Lev Mey’s 19th-century play, the opera constructs a fictionalized backstory to the real circumstances surrounding the death of Ivan the Terrible’s third wife only days after their marriage. Both the Mey and Rimsky-Korsakov versions suggest her downfall was precipitated by the romantic combination of spurned love, jealousy and a morally suspect supporting character with a talent for mixing potent potions. Though the libretto is Russian to the core, Rimsky-Korsakov was more agnostic in his influences in the score. The compelling piece includes a mad scene owing much to Donizetti, Romantic motifs reminiscent of the more European Tchaikovsky, and a mezzo-soprano role cut from the same cloth as Verdi’s Egyptian princess Amneris from Aida.
In the opera, the bride-to-be, Marfa, is engaged to the young boyer, Lykov, but a member of the Tsar’s secret police, Grigory Gryaznoy, hopes to win her for himself. Gryaznoy convinces the Tsar’s doctor, Bomelius, to concoct a love potion so he can win Marfa’s heart. Unfortunately, Gryaznoy’s mistress, Lyubasha, overhears his plans, and she eventually offers herself to Bomelius in exchange for poison to kill her rival.
All this plotting is for naught, as the Tsar chooses Marfa as his new wife, but by this time, she has already been poisoned. The opera races towards a tragic ending as Lykov is killed as the prime suspect in the poisoning, Marfa loses grasp of reality in fit of high-flying coloratura, Gryaznoy mistakenly confesses to poisoning the new Tsarina with his love potion, and Lyubasha corrects him by admitting that she switched his love potion with her more deadly one.
Having conducted a new production of The Tsar’s Bride this past season at the Bolshoi Theatre, the venerable Gennady Rozhdestvensky drew on mostly the same young and energetic cast that sang in Moscow. (A second cast will perform the opera on Sunday.)
As Lyubasha, mezzo-soprano Agunda Kulaeva brought pathos, rage, and complexity to the stage. Few entrances in opera are as arresting as Lyubasha’s as she is summoned to serenade the secret police with an a cappella song about a young girl forced into marriage. She held the audience rapt, as her luscious mezzo-soprano enveloped the hall with swooning legato phrases that swelled emotively. Later, her voice seared as she bargained with Dr. Bomelius over payment of his poison.
Olga Kulchynska, a winsome brunette who was plucked from the Bolshoi’s Young Artist Program to star as Marfa, sang the role with a pure tone. However, she struggled to support some of her higher notes and was imprecise in her coloratura passages during the second act. Perhaps her nerves had settled by the fourth act, in time for an eerily dreamy mad scene, as she hallucinates that Gryaznoy is her beloved Lykov.
As the scheming Gryaznoy, Elchin Azizov, a young baritone from Azerbaijan, sang with a tight vibrato and a distinctive edge that served him well in his menacing role.
Clear-voiced tenor Bogdan Volkov was an earnest Lykov, and Marat Gali, also a tenor, provided appropriate unctuousness as Dr. Bomelius. The magnificent chorus, led by chief chorus master Valery Borisov, was called upon frequently.
Rozhdestvensky, now 83 and in his seventh decade at the Bolshoi, certainly owns this part of the repertoire. He is an exacting conductor who uses economic gestures to elicit large sounds, especially from the percussion and brass section, which boomed through the house in both the overture and the third act marriage announcement.
Still, among this mostly limpid reading were some signs of fray: pizzicatos weren’t always in unison and entrances not always smoothly navigated. However, it’s hard to think of a better advocate for this scarcely seen opera. Just last season, the Metropolitan Opera presented the first performance of another Russian masterpiece, Borodin’s Prince Igor, in nearly a century. Perhaps a first staged production of The Tsar’s Bride is not far behind.
The Tsar’s Bride will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday. lincolncenterfestival.org.