For a composer whose Scheherazade, Capriccio espagnol and so called Flight of the Bumble Bee have graced the world for over a century, Rimsky-Korsakov is relatively unknown in the international opera repertory. The Tsar’s Bride, despite having been a regular in Russia for many years, has only recently begun to make its round on the world opera stage. In 2014, The Bolshoi Opera staged a revival of the original design by Fyodor Fedorovsky dating back to the 1950s. It is this production that the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival chose as an anchor in the programme this year.

Bolshoi Opera: <i>The Tsar's Bride</i> © Damir Yusupov
Bolshoi Opera: The Tsar's Bride
© Damir Yusupov

The time is 1572, in the last third of the long reign of Ivan the Terrible; the scene: Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, not far from Moscow. Marfa, daughter of successful merchant Sobakin, is in love with, and about to marry, her childhood sweetheart Lykov. Yet Grigory Gryaznoy, an oprichnik, one of the clique of the Tsar’s staunch supporters, is madly in love with her. He persuades the Tsar’s German physician Bomelius to give him a potion to drug Marfa into submission. Aroused to frenzied jealousy, his mistress Lyubasha also tries to coax Bomelius into giving her a potion, but one which can slowly debilitate and kill Marfa. For this, Bomelius blackmails her for sexual favours. Lyubasha switches her potion for Gryaznoy’s at Marfa’s engagement, where the Sobakin family learns about the Tsar’s decision to choose Marfa as his next wife. Lyubasha’s potion works its magic, and Marfa languishes in delirium in the Tsar’s palace. Ridden with guilt and regret, Gryaznoy kills Lyubasha, before he is killed in turn by her “godfather” Malyuta Skuratov, a proxy for Ivan the Terrible.

The Tsar’s Bride is a sombre and dark tale of woe as much about the brutality of the Russian Tsarist regime as it is about the limited control man has over forces that shape his destiny.  With the exception of Act II, in which Marfa relishes her happy times with Lykov with her friend Dunyasha, the rest of the opera is weighed down by the depressing fate of the protagonists at the mercy of events beyond their control: Gryaznoy’s obsessive infatuation with Marfa, Lyubasha’s jealousy, Marfa’s hallucinations and Lykov’s loss of her at the hands of the Tsar. It’s almost as if the characters all carry an invisible millstone around their necks.

In the Bolshoi Opera production on Saturday, the solid set and layers of thick costumes give this feeling of gravity a special flavour. Alyona Pikalova spares no expense in making Fyodorovsky’s original 2-D design come to life in 3-D. The outsize hall in which Gryaznoy entertains his guests looks rock solid with thick and sturdy logs, the trees reach high into the sky outside Sobakin’s house, and the pillars at the palace are ornate with detailed filigree. The costumes glitter with embroidery and the headgear, from the oprichniki’s bearskin top hats to Marfa’s kokoshnik, is all elaborately designed.

Bolshoi Opera: <i>The Tsar's Bride</i> © Damir Yusupov
Bolshoi Opera: The Tsar's Bride
© Damir Yusupov

Venera Gimadieva, who debuted at the BBC Proms in 2013 in the Royal Albert Hall with Bernard Hermann’s Salammbo’s Aria, and played Violetta in La traviata in Glyndebourne last year, put in a superb performance as Marfa, the hapless victim of the ménage à trois. She has a light and airy voice that nevertheless packs a great deal of punch when needed. Her soft and controlled delivery of the farewell aria made it a real tear-jerker. Elchin Azizov as Gryanznoy, a mad bull of an inmate in the China shop prison of his infatuation, was forceful enough, but somewhat a plaster cast. Lyubasha’s moment should have been her a cappella song in Act I about the plight of a woman forced to marry an older man – a mirror image of Marfa’s fate – but Svetlana Shilova was less plaintive than I would have liked. Stanislav Mostovoy’s Bomelius was a veritable rat with physical features reminding one of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. His squeaky but clear and flexible voice soared to the highest levels of treachery.

We are entitled to expect that Rimsky-Korsakov, as the author of a respected tome on orchestration that remains current a century on, to turn in a delicately developed score. The well-crafted details in the woodwinds, brass and percussion came through on Saturday, but the strings were clearly underpowered at many points.  The musical presentation was not quite a match for the powerhouse of dramatic detail director Julia Pevzner had constructed.

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