by Carolyn Val-Schmidt and Coril Prochnow
Independent Opera Company’s July production of The Tsar’s Bride at West LA’s Lutheran Church of the Master was a very rare outing of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, which was first produced in Moscow in 1899 and is well-beloved in Russia.
It is the story of a beautiful young woman, Marfa, who is about to marry her true love, Lykov. However, a powerful Oprichnik (Secret Police), Grigory Gryaznoy, has fallen in love with her and is determined to have her at any cost. He procures a love potion which he intends to add to Marfa’s wine during her betrothal ceremony, to compel her to love him. His scorned girlfriend, Lyubasha, discovers Grigory’s new interest and swears to destroy the woman who has stolen him away. She secretly replaces the love-potion with another concoction that destroys human beauty, which Grigory unwittingly pours into Marfa’s wine, causing her to become suddenly ill.
To further complicate matters, Tsar Ivan (the Terrible), who has been searching for a bride, announces that he has chosen Marfa to be his Tsarina. Normally this would be considered a great honor to Marfa and her family, but her reaction is horror and despair, which contribute to her continued illness. Grigory publicly accuses Lykov of poisoning Marfa to prevent her marriage to the Tsar and kills him (at the Tsar’s command), then brags of the murder to Marfa. Hearing that Lykov is dead, she collapses, unconscious. When she recovers, she is confused, disoriented, lost in the past. She mistakes Grigory for Lykov and sings to him tenderly about their love.
Grigory is stricken at the injury he has caused his beloved Marfa, and confesses that it was he who put the potion in her drink. Lyubasha then announces that she replaced his love-potion with poison, and Grigory kills her in a fury. He is arrested and taken away while Marfa, oblivious to all the drama, loses her sanity and dies.
Liza Barskaya (the daughter of Galina Barskaya and Misha Barsky, visiting from NY) was the first performer to appear as she gracefully danced up the center aisle and onstage during the overture, charming the audience and setting the mood for the story. She appeared three more times during the opera, foretelling events through her dance and reflecting the emotions of the characters at various points in the story. Her choreography, costumes and hairstyles were clearly telling, beautifully evocative of the music and drama.
It is said that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote The Tsar’s Bride as a melodic reaction against the works of Wagner. It was a surprise, then, to hear the singing begin with a long, contemplative, almost Wagnerian solo by the baritone lead, Ken Simms, who sang Grigory Grigoryevich Gryaznoy in a big voice that easily filled the house. Although the role was full of inner drama, Simms played it stoically, allowing his character to become truly animated only in the tragic final scene of the opera.
Lyubasha was touchingly and dramatically portrayed by Jessica Mirshak. In an unusual twist, the composer gave her a lovely, lonely folksong to sing a capella at the beginning of the opera, which told a story of love and loss. Her flowing legato line, saturated with varied colors and dynamics, gave her rendition of the pleading aria a compelling intensity.
Michael Margulies was the Oprichnik Skuratov, singing with a full, rich baritone and creating one of the more fleshed-out characterizations of the day by showing humor and wry sarcasm in his delivery. Christian Quilici, a fine, bright lyric tenor with a facile dramatic sensibility, fully portrayed the suffering and angst felt by his character, Ivan Sergeyevich Lykov.
Amber Alarcon was delightful as Dunyasha, the darling confidante of the soprano lead, Marfa, singing with a warm, clean mezzo and a captivating stage presence. Karen Hogle Brown took the lead as Marfa. These two young women brought the only gentle and innocent light that could be found in the dark, fatalistic opera. Ms. Brown’s polished movement and dramatic sense showed considerable stage experience; her silvery soprano was strong and well-placed in both the light-hearted girlish exchanges with Dunyasha and in the more dramatic scenes with Grigory.
Yelisey Bomelius, the Tsar’s doctor, was convincingly portrayed by tenor David Connors. He introduced his character as a subservient figure, to be made use of by Grigory and Dunyasha, then developed into a really smarmy jerk, changing his body movement and vocal timbres to convey the transformation. A light tenor, his voice had a clean resonance and carried well in the space. Candace Leigh Anya Bogan, as Domna Ivanovna Saburova, sang with a full, rich, focused soprano, completely comfortable onstage and dazzling in her performance.
Misha Barsky sang the role of Marfa’s father, Vasily Stepanovich Sobakin, with conviction and a beautifully authentic Russian sound, effectively evoking a tragic figure, unable to stop the cascading sequence of events which threatened to destroy his daughter. Eric Castro, baritone, sang not at all! as he made his single entrance as the Tsar. His character, however, dominated the story and his ominous, menacing demeanor was absolutely chilling.
The trio near the end of Act I was gorgeous. The final men’s chorus in Act II was well sung and, interestingly enough, scored for only two parts – which seemed surprising, given the glorious robustness of most Russian choral music. The entire cast did a fine job of delivering the lyrics in Russian and of conveying personalities that contributed to the story; several chorus members filled the roles of family members and servants. There were many scowly faces throughout, as all the lovers were terribly worried about whether they would end up with their beloveds, and everyone else was fearful of the Tsar and his Secret Police. Heathcliffian brooding abounded.
Stage Director Megan Gillespie utilized three chairs as her only stage furniture, repositioning them for each act to predict the eventual positions of characters; hand props were minimal. The show was set in current time, with performers’ modern-day dress illustrating their relative social positions. At the piano, Artistic Director Galina Barskaya played with authoritative passion and grace, her fortes sonorous and her dolces joyful. It was a delight to watch her uplifting smile as she brought the orchestra part to life with color and finesse.
Supertitles shown throughout the performance were a great help, especially as this was an unfamiliar work. They were a bit funky, with phrases broken between slides; still, they were invaluable in communicating the ongoing story.
The beauty of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music carried the day, his Romantic style and gorgeous melodies ringing familiarly, particularly in the Overture and Intermezzo, even though the work as an entirety was not well-known to the audience. There was enthusiastic and enduring applause at its conclusion; it had been a treat for us all to hear and see the work of this great Russian master in a live production.
This was the last production of Independent Opera’s 2014-15 season. For information about their 2015-16 season, go to the company website at www.independentoperacompany.com.