Rimsky-Korsakov's operas are rarely performed outside Russia, although this is a staple of the repertoire there according to the programme notes. This production, the first at any of the major UK opera companies suggests that this neglect is unfair, but also shows up some of the problems involved.
High praise must first be accorded to the production, directed by Paul Curran with sets and costumes by Kevin Knight. Curran's name rings bells, but I can't on the basis of his programme bio find any evidence that I have seen any of his stagings before. He and Knight successfully transport the action to Putin's Russia creating effectively ominous environments in which violence is never far away, but also suggesting ways in which the old ways linger – whether it be the wedding candles set down around the businessman's roof-top swimming pool, or the fabulous gilt-hall of the death scene, haunted not just by the mad bride but by Tsars and regimes gone by. For me the most effective part of the whole staging is Curran's brilliant handling of the opening aria. I won't spoil it for anyone who may go, but it's a superb example of effective directorial interpretation of the text, and creates a sharp sense of the lurking presence of violence which hangs over the whole opera.
Musically things are a bit more mixed. A family member who attended the previous week found the score weak. I actually think there's a lot to like. There are some beautiful arias and interesting instrumentation and I could hear echoes of other Russian operas that I'm familiar with in the choral writing and use of percussion. But in this case something seemed to go a bit wrong with the pacing. Normally Mark Elder has an impeccable dramatic sense, but here particularly during the first half things seemed often to slow down to a crawl, and drama drained away. Not knowing the score makes it difficult to form a complete judgement – were these tempi indicated by Rimsky-Korsakov? Otherwise I wondered if Elder was tired after his rescue mission on the recent Fidelio revival, or whether he was following the singers too much – Ekaterina Gubanova (Lyubasha) despite singing beautifully seemed guilty of slowing things down too much. There were also some unusual lapses in the ensemble. The orchestra lacked vim at times (again particularly in the first act) and the chorus seemed to struggle with the Russian, and as a consequence weren't always keeping in with the band. However, all these matters improved in the second half (this may or may not have been assisted by the glass of wine I had at the interval!)
The stand outs among the singers were Johan Reuter as the villain (Grigory Gryaznoy) and Gubanova as his hapless mistress. There were also nicely characterised supporting performances from Dmytro Popov (Likov), Paata Burchuladze (Sobakin) and Vasily Gorshkov (Bomelius). Of the official lead singer, Marina Poplavskaya (Marfa – the Tsar's Bride of the title) I am more doubtful. I thought she had problems with control and pitch during her Act Two aria, but improved in the mad scene in Act Four. Overall though, I just don't find her a very enjoyable voice to listen too – the tone too often sounds strained and sour to me, and the vocal infelicities aren't compensated for by a sufficient dramatic punch.
I commented somewhat tetchily in my recent piece on next year's ROH season, about their choices with regard to Russian repertoire. Unlike last year's Prokofiev effort, I was glad to have seen this opera staged, I think it does deserve to be seen more frequently than it is, and the Royal Opera are to be commended for putting it on, even if, on this occasion, one or two things didn't quite come off musically.