Tuesday 1 April 2014

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tsar's Bride (Berlin 2013 - Webcast)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tsar's Bride

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater - Berlin, 2013

Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Anatoli Kotscherga, Olga Peretyatko, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Tobias Schabel, Pavel Cernoch, Anita Rachvelishvili, Stephan Rügamer, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Anna Lapkovskaja, Carola Höhn

ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - October 2013

It was fairly evident from the Metropolitan Opera's recent revelatory production of Borodin's Prince Igor that director Dmitri Tcherniakov not only wants to introduce rarely performed Russian opera works to western audiences, but he also wants to make them fresh, modern and relevant in the transition. That view is confirmed by the Berlin Staatsoper's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride (from October 2013), where it doesn't take too long for the facade showing a winter street scene from the period of Ivan the Terrible to fall and reveal a very different behind the scenes contemporary setting in a TV studio.

References to a Tsar are never going to fit comfortably into any modern production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, least of all a Dmitri Tcherniakov one. The director's idea here then is to cast Tsar Ivan's oprichniks as television executives, exercising their control over the public and obedience to the government through the broadcast of propaganda messages. The so-called 'tsar' that they serve however is only a virtual creation mocked up on computer software, his on-screen appearances in the broadcasts put together with an actor and motion capture technology. This whole background scene-setting sequence - far from the original work - is played out as a series of projections and e-mail chats exchanged between Grigory Gryaznoy and his staff, searching for a suitable bride for their tsar.

It's a typical Tcherniakov setting then, one where the public face and the reality beneath the surface and behind the scenes is contrasted and compartmentalised. This is reflected in the stage designs of Act I which have the director's familiar divisions into separate rooms, one showing a green-screen backed television studio filled with cameras where the recordings are made under bright studio lights. This backs onto a production office where the broadcasts are monitored, and a third section presents a conference room for the oprichnik executives to make their policy decisions and carouse in revelry of their power. On a revolving stage, the ingenious design is allowed to flow freely from one scene to the next, retaining in the process the wonderful flow of Rimsky-Korsakov's score.

The more 'public' scenes of Act II, and the opening of Act III take place in the living room of the Sobakin's house which is depicted in the boxed-in style of Tcherniakov's Paris Opera Macbeth. Marfa and her family can be seen through large windows in a big room with a flatscreen TV. As well as bringing the broadcasts of the "tsar" to the public, it also proves to be a strong way to depict the jealousy of Lyubasha as she looks in on the happy household and her love rival. So while we don't have the any mysterious monks appearing wearing a black oprichnik cassock, the television broadcasts of the computer generated virtual Tsar have perhaps a more sinister and insidious aspect. As always with this director then, it doesn't always work on a strictly literal level, but the intentions and meaning come through well.

Whatever you make of the concept, there's no denying that the rich dramatic vitality of The Tsar's Bride is all there in the performances. Whether that's because of Tcherniakov's direction or despite his intervention is a matter of judgement, but certainly the musical strengths of Rimsky-Korsakov's score are in evidence in the rousing account of the work conducted under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Reflecting the richness of the work, with romantic rivalry, fantasy elements and love potions, the raging passions are all played out in a typical bold Russian character with big declaimed arias and roaring choruses, and Barenboim directs it all brilliantly, in a production that is bursting with life and vigour.

It's a work then that demands equally passionate Russian singing, and there are few disappointments on that score. The real stand-out performance came surprisingly from Anita Rachvelishvili, who is really showing that she is by far and away strongest as a singer in the Russian repertoire. As Lyubasha, she has a showcase a capella song in Act I which she handles admirably, but there's depth of character and passion here as well. Her expression of jealousy of Marfa and anger at Gryaznoy's betrayal really holds the emotional heart of the work together and allows the viewer to sympathise with Lyubasha as she is driven to the extreme of plotting Marfa's downfall. That culminates in an outstanding and chilling expression of anger at her rival at the close of Act II.

Olga Peretyatko has a voice of marvellous depth and character, capable of tackling the most demanding of Rossinian coloratura heroines with no thinning of the voice across the range. In Russian opera, and in a role like Marfa, there is however an extra force and stamina required and Peretyatko's voice isn't quite right for it. Her timbre is so bright and beautiful however that it's still delightful to hear her sing such a role. Where it really comes into its own is in Marfa's final 'mad scene' of poison delirium, which has to be credible enough to move even Gryaznoy to repent, and it is. Even if he is not Russian, the German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle sings like one, boldly declarative and passionate, bringing a measure of the kind of characterisation that is also required to make the role of Gryaznoy real.

The Berlin Staatsoper's production of The Tsar's Bride was recorded for broadcast in October 2013 and played for a limited time only on the German version of the ARTE Live Web/ARTE Concert web site. It's no longer available for on-line viewing.