The message in Paul Curran's new production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride is a simple one: violent and powerful men are the same in every era. And, of course, no good can result from the violence. If the opera's title made you expect a happy and light-hearted occasion, think again: it's definitely not that sort of Royal Wedding.

Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, Paata Burchuladze as Sobakin, and Johan Reuter as Grigory © 2011 The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper
Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa, Paata Burchuladze as Sobakin, and Johan Reuter as Grigory
© 2011 The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper

The opera is based on an 1849 play which is itself a loose rendering of historical events in the 16th century. The unseen Tsar of the title is Ivan the Terrible, and the bride is his third wife Marfa, who died in mysterious circumstances three days after their wedding, allegedly poisoned. Curran's production transfers the action to the gangland of the Russian oligarchs, with considerable effectiveness. In the first scene, the violent anti-hero Grigory sings an opening recitative and aria telling us of his infatuation with Marfa. In Curran's production, Grigory is the owner of a club frequented by the gangsters, and the aria is sung as he stares a blindfolded man that he has just killed. The feeling of alienation and threat is maintained constantly through the opera. Kevin Knight's sets display a level of opulence which is ratcheted upwards for each act (except Act 2, which is set in the back streets), adding further to the oppressive atmosphere. The sets are quite stunning: the Act 3 set drew gasps and applause for its version of Marfa's family's rooftop penthouse, complete with swimming pool and skyscrapers in the background.

For me, the outstanding performance of the evening came from Ekaterina Gubanova as Grigory's jilted lover Lyubasha. In Act 1, she is called upon to sing a number for Grigory's assembled guests: she sings of her own troubles, disguised as a folk song lament. Most of the song is without any accompaniment, and is then followed by a passionate and intense duet: it's a punishing test and Gubanova was quite superb. In her Act 2 aria, she even managed to make us feel sorry for Lyubasha, which is quite an achievement given that this is probably the single most evil character in the opera who is describing to us how she intends to slowly and painfully murder Marfa.

Marina Poplavskaya excelled in the title role's main moment, which is the Act 4 mad scene: Marfa has lost her mind from a combination of Lyubasha's poison and the news of the death of her previous fiancée. The scene is the polar opposite to the melodramatic ravings in Lucia di Lammermoor, and perhaps the more affecting because of it. There are no fireworks: Marfa is just quietly and happily bonkers, with her mind completely disconnected from the reality around her. Poplavskaya gave us a memorable rendition, lyrical, sensitive and credible. Amidst a generally strong cast, Johan Reuter as Grigory and Alexander Vinogradov as the Tsar's henchman Malyuta-Skuratov made a fine representation of villainous tough guys. The Royal Opera Chorus were also in strong form, extended to giant size for the big set pieces.

Musically, it was a fine evening. Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestration and a strong advocate of Russian nationalism in music, and both these traits come through strongly. The orchestration is constantly on the move with different textures to tempt your ear, and the music has a thick Russian accent.

The weakness of The Tsar's Bride is that as a drama, in spite of Curran's impressive direction, it doesn't maintain its grab on you. It reminded me of seeing one of the earlier Handel operas: there are very few actual events (and several of these happen off stage), the majority of the piece comprising the characters singing to you at length about their situation. In this kind of work, the drama must be found in the characterisation through the music, and while The Tsar's Bride has fabulous music, I don't think there's enough meat on the characters to provide the dramatic empathy and catharsis of a real tragedy.

But even if it lacks high powered tragic impact, The Tsar's Bride makes for a fascinating evening. Seeing Russian opera performed to this quality is very different from the Italian and German works that make up the staple operatic diet, and the music, singing and well crafted staging make this well worth seeing.