Being able to experience the Bolshoi in New York is an impossibly rare and delightful treat – almost like having caviar and champagne delivered by Seamless! The Bolshoi Opera’s performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride at Avery Fisher Hall did not need sets and costumes to thrill the audience on Friday evening. The concert performance of this grand opera began the Bolshoi’s two-and-a-half week residency, which also includes performances of three ballets. The Tsar’s Bride featured a well-rounded cast of ten soloists who were supported by the Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus.

Agunda Kulaeva (Lyubasha) in rehearsals © G Damir Yusupov
Agunda Kulaeva (Lyubasha) in rehearsals
© G Damir Yusupov

Hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s score, however, one wonders what is so Russian about this “Russian” music? Rimsky-Korsakov and the other composers of the Five certainly tried to establish a uniquely Russian style. The Tsar’s Bride, however, sounds like something Rossini and Verdi might compose together if you stuck them both in Moscow for a month and fed them only beets and vodka.

What is uniquely Russian about this opera is its libretto, crafted by the composer himself after a play by Lev Mei. The story reimagines the ill-fated tale of a commoner who was chosen to marry Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but died several days after their wedding. In the opera, we perhaps sympathize most with the guileless Marfa, who ultimately marries the Tsar and dies. But, we sympathize with many of the characters, even those who are driven to intrigue and murder. As a result, the opera is as dramaturgically rich and complex as any Russian novel.

The most outstanding soloists were Elchin Azizov, in the role of Grigory Gryaznoy, and Agunda Kulaeva, as Lyubasha, his jealous mistress. Azizov displayed a robust baritone in his dramatic solo scene that begins the opera, and showed no signs of fatigue throughout the evening as he performed this demanding role.

More impressive still was Kulaeva, whose plush mezzo-soprano made her the perfect Lyubasha. The character’s a cappella entrance aria is unique for any opera. A mere 52 measures, this sorrowful song tells of a young woman as she prepares to consummate an unwanted, arranged marriage with an older man. Because the singer, unaccompanied, must perform “naked” in a sense, this moment in the opera is all the more intimate. Though the piece could easily become indulgent, Kulaeva’s interpretation was nuanced and restrained.

Soprano Olga Kulchynska was excellent in the role of Marfa, the Tsar’s chosen bride who dies by the hands of Grigory and Lyubasha. Her luminous and lithe soprano soared, particularly in her Act II cavatina and her Act IV mad scene.

Irina Rubtsova was a delight as Domna Saburova, a friend of Marfa and her family. The soprano knew perfectly how to perform in the difficult medium of concert opera, in which singers simply cannot “park and bark,” but on the other hand simply mustn’t be too histrionic. But, Rubtsova was perfectly at ease on stage and displayed a remarkable dramatic sensitivity even in this supporting role.

Gennady Rozhdestvensky © Lincoln Center
Gennady Rozhdestvensky
© Lincoln Center

The Bolshoi Chorus provided some of the most viscerally exhilarating musical moments throughout the evening. And not surprisingly so, since Russia and the former Soviet states boast some of the most well developed choral traditions in the word. The Orchestra, though excellent, often overpowered the soloists. Bogdan Volkov had to compete with the orchestra for much of his Act I aria. Even in the Act III sextet with accompanying chorus, there were passages when the vocal forces could not compete with the sound of the orchestra for measures at a time.

When the opera ended with a dramatic tutti, marked fff in the score, the floors of the hall were literally buzzing. The audience was stunned. After several seconds of silence, conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky turned, almost as if to double-check that there was in fact an audience present and this was not a dress rehearsal. At this, the audience chuckled, and then quickly erupted into applause.

After this rousing performance of The Tsar’s Bride and the success of Borodin's Prince Igor earlier this season at the Met, perhaps the market for Russian opera will continue to grow in America. And, while some Russian scores aren't particularly “Russian” per se, one thing is certainly clear: hearing them performed by the Bolshoi is best.