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Lyrical Epic: Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride'

Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Bill Cooper
courtesy of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Tsar's Bride' at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

In 1939, the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made a splash in Hollywood with the American release of his sweeping historical epic Alexander Nevsky. Then he followed it up in the '40s with the even more sprawling, three-part drama Ivan the Terrible.

To many American movie buffs, these films surely seemed new and exotic, with their colorful Russian settings and dark, psychological undertones. Opera fans, on the other hand, may have recognized the movies as part of a theatrical trend dating back to the previous century.

In the mid-1800s, a group of young composers got together in St. Petersburg. Now known as "The Mighty Handful," their goal was to establish a distinctly Russian school of composing, and Russian history was one of their most important tools.

When it comes to opera, the most famous product of their efforts is Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Other members of the group also pitched in — notably Alexander Borodin with Prince Igor. And there was another, less familiar contribution from a composer not known for somber, historical dramas: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Though Rimsky-Korsakov is familiar to many music lovers for his brilliantly orchestrated concert music — including the popular symphonic poem Scheherazade — he also wrote a dozen or so operas. Many of them are showy concoctions based on fantastic stories from Russian folklore and legend. But his 1899 opera The Tsar's Bride is something else altogether. It's a complex, psychological drama, steeped in history and driven by one of the same characters that later inspired Eisenstein: the 16th-century Tsar Ivan IV (better known in the English-speaking world as Ivan the Terrible). It's also a fascinating attempt by a distinctly Russian composer to compose an opera leaning heavily on a lyrical, almost Italian style of vocal writing.

The story of The Tsar's Bride speculates about a single, mysterious event during Ivan's long reign — his brief marriage to Marfa Sobakin, his third wife, who died just days after their wedding in 1571. In the opera, Ivan himself never utters a word. During his single appearance on stage, his identity is revealed though a traditional Russian melody heard in the orchestra. Yet the tsar is a looming presence throughout the drama, represented in the oppressive actions of his dreaded secret police, the oprichniks, who include some of the opera's most compelling characters.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents The Tsar's Bride in a striking new production from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In it, stage director Paul Curran moves the drama forward more than four centuries, setting the action in present-day Moscow. The stars include soprano Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, baritone Johann Reuter as the ruthless oprichnik Gryaznoy and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Marfa's tragic rival, Lyubasha.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.