The Tsar’s Bride, Avery Fisher Hall, New York – review

The once-mighty Bolshoi Opera may be enduring managerial frailty these days at home in Moscow. But the company – lock, stock and possibly reduced chorus – appeared reasonably secure at the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday. Although the vehicle, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, is a staple in Russia, it remains a rarity here. The house was packed for this concert performance, and the mood celebratory.

The central force had to be Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, still formidable at 83, and, sadly, a master rarely encountered in the US. Despite occasionally shaky orchestral responses and a tendency to favour languor over propulsion, he sustained clarity, logic and pathos throughout. He managed to do so, moreover, even when Rimsky’s blood-and-gutsy melodrama stalled for rambling expositions.

The opera, completed in 1899, tells a phoney-historic tale about Marfa, a radiant maiden who goes melodiously mad after being poisoned by Lyubasha, a jealous rival, and forced to marry Ivan the Terrible. There may be little subtlety here, but the romantic arias and folksy ensembles, crucially anti-Wagnerian in spirit, are glorious at best, knowingly crafted at worst. The passionate climaxes, when carefully calibrated as they were here, make a mighty, agreeably theatrical noise.

The performance, though compelling as a whole, seemed a bit uneven in detail. Olga Kulchynska, a remarkably promising novice, looked exquisite in the only white gown onstage and sang Marfa with gleaming tone enhanced by dynamic sensitivity. One easily overlooked a few patches of suspect pitch. Agunda Kulaeva exuded such tempestuous ardour as the jealous Lyubasha that one forgave her lightweight mezzo-soprano for not being heavyweight. One also applauded her refusal to force for unnatural impact.

The baritone Elchin Azizov boomed and blustered con brio in the villainous platitudes of the oprichnik Grigory Gryaznoy, and the seasoned bass Vladimir Matorin projected extraordinarily sympathetic bravado as Sobakin, the heroine’s father. Marat Gali did his considerable best to understate the slimy clichés of Bomelius, the resident sorcerer, but the major tenor on duty, Bogdan Volkov, made a minor vocal impression as the lovelorn boyar Lykov.

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