The San Francisco Opera's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's
"The Tsar's Bride" is a powerful drama in the Russian Grand Opera
tradition with lavish sets and costumes by Zack Brown. It's set in the 17th
century during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. This production is designed exactly
to Rimsky-Korsakov's specifications. In Act 1, all props and wall hangings are
specified. In Act 2, houses on left and right, Autumn leaves, monastery in background,
are as the composer directed it.
The curtain rises on the Oprichniki, or Tsar's
Bodyguard, Gryaznoy recounting his youthful debauchery, but he's in love now
with the beautiful Marfa. Unfortunately for him, she's in love with her childhood
sweetheart, Lykov. Servants put torches in the holders, and the lights come
up on the interior of what looks like a well appointed hunting lodge of the
period. The Oprichniks and others arrive and the male chorus concludes with
a tremolo effect that sounds almost like a CD skipping. It's the first of numerous
exceptional vocal effects for the evening.
Lykov sings an idyllic aria about the beauty
of Germany, where he has been living. They propose a toast to the Tsar, and
six women do a lively folk dance in praise of the hop-vine and beer. The company
concludes with general celebration. After the banquet Lyubasha sings a melancholy
song about how she renounced her own true love, Gryaznoy, who looks away.
Olga Borodina is sweet and tender as she mourns the loss of her love, but there's
a foreboding and edge as she overhears Gryaznoy ask Bomelius for a love potion,
and she becomes hard as nails, swearing revenge on her rival.
It's fall in the village in Act 2. The Oprichniki
are intimidating as they sing of their prowess. When they leave the villagers
tell us, "some poor wretch is going to lose his head." Marfa and Dunyasha
are alone, and they sing of love. The Tsar enters, disguised as a huntsman,
and stares at and through Marfa. The girls are frightened and Marfa says "My
blood runs cold." When they go in the house, Lyubasha lurks around, looks
in the window, and swears her revenge on her rival, as she hears the girls'
laughter inside. She gets Bomelius to substitute a slow death potion for Gryaznoy's
love potion. It's a dark night with a single light burning in the background
as the broken and revengeful Lyubasha contemplates, "see what I have come
Act 3 opens in front of the Tsar's palace
as he inspects the twelve girls who are the finalists to be his bride. The curtain
and scrim open to Sobakin's small, but comfortable house. He, Lykov, and Gryaznoy
are discussing Lykov's wedding to Marfa. She's one of the Tsar's finalists,
but it looks more like Dunyasha, so everybody is optimistic. Jay Hunter Morris'
Lykov sings of his love for Marfa with clear, ringing joy. Dimitri Hvorostovsky's
Gryaznoy is strong, powerful, and resonant as he toasts them with "may
God fill your house like a golden treasury." He slips the slow death potion,
thinking it's the love potion into Marfa's cup, and urges her to drain the last
drop, in the ancient tradition. When the Boyars come and announce Marfa will
be the Tsar's bride, she shrinks back, then steps forward. Lykov falls to a
knee and she reaches out to him in supplication.
The final act opens like the third, in front
of the palace. This time the curtain rises into a room in the palace. The courtiers
are there, but Marfa is ill. Her father and brothers are all Boyars now. Kevin
J. Langan's Sobakin has all the material wealth he ever wanted, and the things
that satisfy his vanity make people envious of him. His heart breaks though,
because of his daughter's illness. He kneels as his bass aria trails away to
a single note that he holds for about eight bars in another amazing vocal moment.
Marfa enters, disheveled and ranting as she
sits on her throne. Orchestral flourishes of winds and percussion heighten the
tension. Gryaznoy enters and tells how he executed Lykov. Anna Netrebko is sensational
as she takes it to another level with Marfa's mad scene. She imagines Gyaznoy
as Lykov and caresses him as she sings sweetly to him. It's not a pretentious,
raving madness, but one that builds to ecstasy. She really thinks he is Lykov,
and is sweet and loving, but it's a dark dream. Gryaznoy recoils and tells what
he did, and Marfa raves some more. Lyubasha enters and tells how she switched
potions. Marfa sings sweetly to Vanya about how they played in the garden when
they were young . . . "shall we play tag?" She's triumphant in her
madness, soaring ecstatically. She smiles at the sky, wrinkles her nose like
a little girl letting you in on a secret and collapses in a heap.
Anna Netrebko put on a show like I have rarely
seen in any medium. If Renee Fleming is "The Beautiful Voice," which
she assuredly is, then Anna Netrebko would have to be "The Golden Voice."
She sings with an effortless power, smoothness, beauty, and grace that is second
to none, and acts with the ease and charisma of a Samuel Ramey or Rodney Gilfry.
In Act 2 she sings a beautifully sweet aria of her love for Lykov. He joins
her for a soaring duet. She's having real fun and experiencing genuine joy and
she sweeps you up in it entirely. On top of all this, she has movie star good
looks, plays beautiful women and you don't have to us e any imagination. This
has to be like seeing a young Kiri Te Kanawa, but I don't know if Kiri was this
developed at this stage of her career, and she certainly wasn't as vivacious
and charismatic. It's almost scary to imagine how good Netrebko will be in five
years or so. Her enthusiasm was underscored in the curtain calls as she was
totally animated, smiling out at the audience, leaning forward, brushing her
hair back, and, after she greeted conductor William Lacey, he took his bows
while she was in the background jumping up and down and clapping her hands.
Anna Netrebko stole the show in this all around
outstanding production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride"
at The San Francisco Opera.