BWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

BWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

BWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

It's easy for opera-lovers to complain about the homogenization of casting at the world's great houses-particularly when there's only a small handful of Annas, Jonases, Juan Diegos, Cecilias, etc., that everybody wants to hear. So it was a treat to hear the visiting Bolshoi's concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's THE TSAR'S BRIDE last weekend at Lincoln Center Festival--filled with wonderful solo voices almost completely unknown to New York audiences, along with the stalwart Bolshoi chorus (under Valery Borisov).

The opera itself, of course, is not exactly of LA BOHEME stature in this country, though it remains at the top of the hit parade in Russia. How to explain it? The story's no more preposterous than most of those in our usual repertoire and there are lots of standard elements: an elisir d'amore (as well as a death potion), and even a mad scene. Briefly, here's what happens: soprano loves tenor, baritone has one-sided love for soprano and jilts mezzo, baritone gets love potion for soprano, which mezzo switches for a poison brew, and Ivan the Terrible (who doesn't appear) screws the pooch by choosing the soprano as his bride. Needless to say, nobody lives happily ever after, particularly the bride, who dies from the poison.

My assumption is that the language--Russian--must be the sticking point, both finding the right singers to handle the text and getting audiences to accept something that's a little different to the ears. Otherwise, it has everything else, particularly the musical showpieces that get audiences to their feet. And in this performance conducted by the great Russian maestro Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, the opera moved along smoothly, excitingly and even thrillingly.

We knew we were in for something special from the Bolshoi Orchestra roaring rendition of the familiar overture-perhaps the best-known part of the score to broad audiences--and the opening aria for Gryaznoy, a member of the secret police and one of the opera's villains, sung powerfully by baritone Elchin Azizov.

Azizov had the challenging job of bringing some sympathy to a role that, in theory, didn't deserve any. But with a (spurned) mistress like Lyubasha, one couldn't help getting behind him. Sung with a plush mezzo and great stage presence by Agunda Kulaeva, she may have been the villainess but she easily wrested attention away from everyone else in each scene in which she appeared, without overplaying or pushing her voice.

The eponymous title character is ideally sung by Olga Kulchynska, a promising novice, who looked and sounded exquisite as Marfa. The creepy keeper of the potions--the villainous Bomelius--was sung by the authoritative tenor Marat Gali and another young artist, tenor Bogdan Volkov, had that particular bright sound that only Russian tenors produce. My only complaint was with basso Vladimir Matorin, who had the wooliest voice I've heard in some time.

Now that Russian singers are heard more frequently on these shores, let's hope we see a full-fledged staging of the piece sooner rather than later. (La Scala had a spectacular success last season with a new production by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who did the Met's wonderful PRINCE IGOR.) That is, if Lincoln Center doesn't find itself with another opera company on the way to the boneyard.


Photo: Bolshoi soloists(left to right) at Avery Fisher Hall, July 12, baritone Elchin Azizov, mezzo Agunda Kulaeva, basso Vladimir Matorin, Maestro Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, soprano Olga Kulchynska, tenor Bogdan Volkov, bass Oleg Tsybulko, tenor Marat Gali, soprano Irina Rubtsova, mezzo Elena Novak.

Photo by Stephanie Berger

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.