RIMSKY-KORSAKOV The Tsar's Bride
Rimsky-Korsakov’s historical epic The Tsar’s Bride is given the Dmitri Tcherniakov treatment in this compelling production from the Berlin Staatsoper. Just for a moment, it seems we’re in for a ‘traditional’ production like the whiskery Bolshoi one that provides the only DVD competition. A snowy Red Square is populated with fur-clad guards, but Tcherniakov is merely tantalising us. The drop cloth rises to reveal a studio, with actors against a green screen. The Oprichniks, Ivan the Terrible’s henchmen, are television executives, obediently purveying government propaganda. Tcherniakov takes Rimsky’s Russian warhorse, rarely seen in the West, and turns it into a political thriller.
In the opera, Tsar Ivan is seen only once, a shadowy figure, prompting an exploration of the fine line between truth and fiction. In Tcherniakov’s conceit, those controlling the media decide Russia needs a new tsar, a ruler to believe in…so create a computer-generated leader – a CGI tsar for whom they need a ‘real’ wife to offer credibility. Enter Marfa Sobakin, the young woman caught in the crossfire of these political intrigues.
A revolving set and video wizardry, including dappled sunlight outside Marfa’s home, keep the action flowing smoothly, in pin-sharp picture quality. Media rules. The Sobakins’ flatscreen television airs a rolling news channel and Marfa’s mad scene is filmed in the glare of the studio. As she dies, archive footage merrily plays on monitors; one wonders whether the public will ever learn the truth.
Olga Peretyatko is an adorable Marfa, her bright timbre and easily floated top notes making her the picture of teenage innocence. Her delirious mad scene is beautifully nuanced. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Gryaznoy, the bitter Oprichnik, is already a broken man from the start, plotting a way to make Marfa love him. When his machinations backfire, he is moving in his desperation. Kränzle’s dark baritone is perfectly suited to the role. The other standout is Anita Rachvelishvili as Lyubasha, Gryaznoy’s ex-lover, who brings down her rival by swapping a love potion for poison. Her rich mezzo is especially haunting in her Act 1 folksong but she’s a convincing actress too.
Stephan Rügamer wheedles as slimy German pharmacist Bomelius and Pavel Cˇernoch makes an appealing Ivan Likov, Marfa’s sap of a fiancé. Veterans Anatoli Kotscherga (apart from a parched bottom F) and Anna Tomowa-Sintow impress in supporting roles. Daniel Barenboim conducts a weighty account of Rimsky’s score, played by the plush sounding Staatskapelle Berlin.