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Royal Wedding Fever

London, 29/04/2011. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The Tsar’s Bride. Nicolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, music. Paul Curran, director. Kevin Knight, set and costume design. David Martin Jacques, lighting design. Johan Reuter, (Grigory Gryzanoy), Alexander Vinogradov (Grigory Malyuta-Skuratov), Vasily Gorshikov (Yesiley Bomelius), Dmitri Popov (Ivan Likov), Ekaterina Gubanova (Lyubasha), Andrew O’Connor (a young lad), Marina Poplavskaya (Marfa Sobakina), Jurgita Adamonyte (Dunyasha), Anne-Marie Owens (Petrovna), Paata Burchuladze (Vasily Sobakin), Elizabeth Woollett (Domna Saburova), Louise Armit (a girl), Jonathan Coad (the Tsar’s stoker). Renato Balsadonna (chorus director). Sir Mark Elder, conductor

Following Alexander Litvinenko’s death due to Polonium poisoning in November 2006, the British media was rife with stories exploring the murky underbelly of contemporary Russia: a world of corruption, betrayal, dirty-dealings, private killings and unimaginable wealth. As many commentators were quick to point out, it signified a strange reversal to the horrors and inequality of past times – a sense that, in Anna Politkovskaya’s words, “[Russia] is hurtling back into a Soviet abyss… total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit.” Soviet times, she suggests - or perhaps before.

In his new production for the Royal Opera House, director Paul Curran takes this idea and runs with it. His staging of The Tsar’s Bride updates the action to the world of modern Russian plutocracy, a society dominated by the forces of money, power, and brutal self-interest. The opera itself is ostensibly inspired by the life of Ivan the Terrible and recounts the search by the Tsar for his ideal wife amongst the nation’s beauties; as it transpires, his eventual choice, Marfa, is also beloved of Gryaznoy, the head of the secret police. Both Marfa and Gryaznoy have partners, and when his mistress Lyubasha learns of his infatuation, she purchases a lethal potion (in exchange for sex) with which she murders Marfa, only for her fiancé Lykov to be executed for the poisoning. The opera ends in a gruesome bloodbath worthy of Tarantino and it was an inspired choice to update this grisly tale to one with such unsettling contemporary resonances.

The precise details of the revision remain unspecified: whether the Tsar represents Putin and the Oprichniki (secret police) his henchman, or rather they are an oil billionaire and his mafia chums is ultimately unimportant. They are the people in power. The set designs by Kevin Knight are superb and indeed at one moment the audience audibly gasped at the staging’s visual ingenuity. The opening scene features a late-night cocktail bar where ballerinas are replaced by lap dancers and torture victims are disposed of like yesterday’s recycling; the succeeding act takes us to a gritty scene of contemporary poverty which could be on a different planet. Most startling was the third act taking place by a rooftop swimming pool with a cinematic projection of the Moscow skyline – a real theatrical coup. The last act took us to the shimmering gold of the Tsar’s palace in which the logic of self-interest and shameless violence founds its inexorable denouement. All in all, a smart idea expertly realised – I hope there’s a DVD.

Musically this was one of the most satisfying evenings at Covent Garden in months, and was much more strongly cast than last year’s disappointing Tsarina’s Slippers. As Gryaznoy, Johan Reuter once again demonstrated his fantastic dramatic voice and instinctive musical flair, with particularly fine singing in his opening expression of love and the final showdown. As Lyubasha, Ekaterina Gubanova gave the evening’s standout performance: her unaccompanied first act aria was hypnotic and throughout she displayed her terrific full-bodied timbre, technical nous and effortless musical charisma. A graduate of Covent Garden’s young artist programme, she has since made significant debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere and should be first choice for Amneris or Eboli in future revivals. Olga Borodina’s successor may have arrived.

In the role of Marfa, Marina Poplavskaya gave a predictably sophisticated, involving performance. As I have made clear before, her strangulated tone and thin upper register have never made her a favourite of mine, but she undoubtedly possesses musical and dramatic instincts and she offered an appropriately poetic interpretation of a part she considers her signature role. The final mad scene made me intrigued by her Violetta in the autumn. As her fiancé, Dmitri Popov revealed a voice of unusual beauty used with great discrimination, and Paata Burchuladze offered similarly refined singing.

As in Fidelio, the evening was conducted by Sir Mark Elder who delivered in his usual style. The score of The Tsar’s Bride is always enjoyable and frequently beautiful (if lacking a ‘big number’ as memorable as those in Evgeny Onegin) and Elder gave full rein to the orchestra’s wide palette of colours. The numerous dances were charmingly delivered and set the seal on a very fine evening both musically and dramatically. A revival in a few years would be welcome indeed.

Este artículo fue publicado el 05/08/2011


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