“Ivan the Terrible... prepare to face him with asparagus and quails' eggs” ran Grange Park Opera’s jocular advertising campaign, desperately trying to summon up a jolly festival feeling for this dark slice of 16th-century Russian history. Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera was actually titled The Maid of Pskov, but it was Serge Diaghilev – no stranger to canny advertising – who first marketed it in 1909 as Ivan the Terrible for his Ballets Russes in Paris, establishing it as a star vehicle for the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin.

The bells of Pskov warn of danger
© Marc Brenner

This same title was used when it was produced by Sir Joseph Beecham at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in July 1913, part of a Russian season which included the UK premiere of Stravinsky’s new ballet The Rite of Spring and Chaliapin as Boris Godunov. It has remained something of a footnote in Russian operatic history outside, rarely performed outside its motherland, so any new production is going to be of interest to the cognoscenti. For this GPO staging, David Pountney piques that interest by tagging on The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga, the 40-minute opera that Rimsky later composed as a standalone prologue to The Maid of Pskov

This prologue provides the context for the main opera. Vera is the wife of a Boyar, who is away on a military campaign. In his absence, she has given birth to a daughter, Olga. Vera explains to her sister Nadezhda that Sheloga is not the father, describing how she was wooed by a mysterious man. When Vera’s husband returns, Nadezhda saves her sister by claiming that Olga is her child.

Evelina Dobračeva (Olga)
© Marc Brenner

Vera’s mysterious lover, it turns out, was none other than Tsar Ivan IV (aka the Terrible) and it's his recognition that Olga is his daughter that saves the city of Pskov in the main opera when Ivan tries to stamp out a rebel movement led by her lover, Tucha. Olga is fatally wounded when the tsar’s order to fire is given, whereupon he finally reveals that she was his daughter. 

Pountney plays it straight for the first half of the evening. Francis O’Connor’s designs feature a portable two-tiered wooden configuration – useful for keeping the chorus socially-distanced – suggesting Pskov’s Kremlin, a huge chandelier-type belfry raised above the stage. Costumes are traditional… until Clive Bayley’s moustachioed Tsar Ivan pitches up. Invited to dine, he removes his great sable furs, revealing Joseph Stalin’s distinctive military tunic. That Pountney draws parallels between Ivan and Stalin is understandable. The Soviet dictator admired Ivan IV and commissioned Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic epic. Stalin/Ivan even watches a reel of silent film footage during the Act 3 prelude. But what this parallel adds to the story is debatable. Cuddly old Uncle Joe? I’m not entirely convinced.

Clive Bayley (Ivan) and Evelina Dobračeva (Olga)
© Marc Brenner

Musically, the main interest comes from the choral numbers and the orchestral evocation of Russian bells familiar from Boris Godunov, another operatic tyrannical tsar. Rimsky composed the opera at the same time that Mussorgsky was revising Boris – even on the same piano! (They were flatmates at the time.) The 24 members of the Grange Park Opera Chorus did a sterling job in music that really requires at least double those forces. Mikhail Tatarnikov conducted the Gascoigne Orchestra (refugees from Garsington Opera) in a lively account of Alex Woolf’s Rimsky reduction, drawing some exciting playing. 

But the evening has its longueurs, the action often static. Much of the main opera relies on backstory narration and tacking on the prologue, with its own narrative, exacerbates this. Vera Sheloga is worth hearing though, not least for the haunting lullaby, taken from the very early set of Rimsky’s Op.2 songs. Evelina Dobračeva, in the dual mother/daughter roles of Vera and Olga, had an uneven performance, suffering several intonation problems but floating some pearly top notes. Liubov Sokolova made a telling contribution as the old nanny who knows everything, her mezzo as fruity as her traditional Russian acting.

Carl Tanner (Tucha) rallies the people to defend Pskov
© Marc Brenner

Carl Tanner sang a robust Tucha, his dark tenor sounding vibrant, contrasting with the biting, wheedling tone of Adrian Thompson as Olga’s intended, Matuta. David Shipley’s authoritative bass was well suited to Prince Tomakov (Nadezhda’s widower, who brings Olga up as his own daughter). Clive Bayley’s booming bass resounded in the small Theatre in the Woods as Ivan and his exaggerated acting – very much in the Chaliapin/Boris Christoff eye-rolling mould – suited Pountney’s direction... even if Ivan didn’t turn out to be quite so terrible after all.