“The Tsar’s Bride” is an energetic, tragic opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov with some rousing drinking songs and a drawn-out death by poison. It is rarely performed outside Russia.
Berlin’s Staatsoper has revived it in a new, smart staging by the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov.
The search for the bride becomes a television casting show and the prize is a virtual bachelor tsar assembled in computer images flashed onto a screen.
He’s a digital composite -- a dash of Peter the Great, a smidgeon of Boris Yeltsin, a smattering of Leon Trotsky -- who ends up looking like Stalin.
The sham beauty contest is conceived in an Internet chat room. Close-up projected images of the blushing young finalists slide across the stage.
Marfa, who wins the contest just as she has taken that poison, becomes the victim of a modern celebrity cult which won’t allow her to peacefully marry her childhood sweetheart and lead a life of bourgeois contentment.
The tsar only makes a brief personal appearance to stare piercingly at Marfa in the libretto, so Tcherniakov’s treatment works. The emotional entanglement revolves around one of his aides, Grigory Gryaznoy, who is violently in love with Marfa.
The dynamic baritone Johannes Martin Kraenzle plays him as a TV mover-and-shaker in denial about his fading appeal to young women. Olga Peretyatko sings Marfa with girlish vivacity.
She can’t really compete with Anita Rachvelishvili as the scorned Lyubasha -- a more complex and interesting character. Rachvelishvili inspires pity, admiration and fear simultaneously and she earned the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
When she confronts Gryaznoy after a dinner party, her humiliation is excruciating. As she paws at his chest, he leans away to examine his drink.
Tcherniakov’s directing is not just about clever concepts - - it is also rich in detail and meticulous in character analysis. Gestures chime perfectly with the libretto.
He designed the unshowy, intelligent sets too -- a modern TV studio and conference room. A large window overlooking the street gains poetry with lush projections of autumn leaves.
Pace and drama are supplied in spades by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle orchestra, with a vibrant, varied performance. Rating: *****.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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