Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes.
I saw that I have completely ignored Rimsky-Korsakov so far, hopefully this makes amends with this review of his first opera. I’d like to do The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya soon as well but it is much longer. There are three or even possibly four versions of this opera, the last was completed in 1892 and is the basis of all later performances and thus recordings. Incidentally Eduard Napravnik’s wife originated one of the roles of the wet nurses. Napravnik was also the premiere conductor. Rimsky-Korsakov later actually wrote a prologue The Noblewoman Vera Shaloga to the second version of the opera which was about how the true paternity of Olga was hidden, but the composer decided to drop it for the third and final version. The libretto was taken almost directly from the second through fourth acts of an 1859 play by the otherwise obscure Russian writer Lev Mei.
PLOT: Pskov, 1570. Similarly to Simon Boccanegra, much of the opera concerns the paternity of the primary female character, Olga Tokmakova (soprano), who is the product of an adulterous affair between the sister-in-law of the man she believes to be her father but is actually her uncle by marriage (Prince Tokmakov, mayor of Pskov, bass): Vera Shaloga (not present), and Ivan the Terrible (bass). Her aunt pretended that she was her mother to protect her sister from the wrath of her husband Prince Shalog. Meanwhile, Tsar Ivan has sacked Novgorod for treason and is about to inflict a similar fate onto Pskov. The subplot involves how Olga is engaged against her will to the boyar Matuta (tenor) while being in love with Mikhail Tucha (tenor).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (52 minutes)
0: The overture ** is about seven minutes long and is a good brooding piece, much quieter than it could be. The opening theme will sound similar to the beginning of the overture to Prince Igor. One of the dominate themes is a specifically Tsarist hymn, along with a constant descending theme, as well as one rather defiant theme from the brass.
Scene 1: The garden of the palace of Prince Tokmakov.
18, 21, 25: After flutterings about from the orchestra, we come upon two contralto wet nurses and other women on stage in a long passage of recitative about Ivan the Terrible’s sacking of the city of Novgorod without ever actually giving us an opening chorus. Sometimes it gets ornery and it is rather dry apart from the wide range of the rather sedate but effective orchestration (including harp arpeggios and effective work in the woodwinds and strings respectively). The entire scene (around eleven and a half minutes long) is important to the plot, as one of the wet nurses goes into most of the background about Olga and the complex political situation which is necessary to understand the rest of the opera, but otherwise the whole affair is rather dull musically. The first male voice ** to be heard is when Olga’s beloved (although she is betrothed to the Boyar Nikita Matuta) the rebellious nobleman, Mikhail Tucha, serenades her off-stage. The number that follows, a duet between Olga and Tucha (this is actually the earliest written section of the current opera), has a rather oddly chromatic accompaniment with a series of dissonant chords popping up frequently *. The duet takes on a more lyrical bent with a long passage from Olga **, but this lasts all of about three minutes. The dialogue between Prince Tomakov and Matuta has an agreeable and serviceable orchestral accompaniment, but it is really just recit that defines only one plot point: Olga is not Tomakov’s biological daughter. It ends a bit more sinister (as the cathedral bells toll fearfully in the distance). Olga, who has been overhearing everything, contemplates what everything that the man she thought was her father means.
Scene 2: Square of the Pskov Kremlin.
35, 42, 49: The scene change occurs during a highly chromatic intermezzo * which is to the same basic theme as the end of the previous scene (in particular the theme that opened the overture) but it eventually does race (similar to the coronation scene in Boris Godunov) about before going back into sedation. The people come on to perhaps the first time cymbals are utilized in the score. A messenger from Novgorod arrives and tells them that Ivan has come to do to them what he did to Novgorod (aka, sack the pillage their city). The people are in panic, although one would not get this impression from the music, except when the cymbals pop in from time to time. Tomakov tells the they have nothing to fear because they are guiltless of treason. Tucha plots a rebellion with his associates. Tomakov gets one noble accompaniment * just as Tucha comes on (it consummates at about two minutes in), plotting a rebellion and stirring up support as Tomakov tries to warn against rebellion. Tucha’s brief arioso con coro * (apparently based on a folk song) of rebellion is oddly restrained in orchestration while the vocal line is very energetic. The male chorus of rebels goes off into the distance (to more themes from the intermezzo) but then everyone can be heard far off in a mild bit of a whirlwind, the orchestra fades out before one last crash.
ACT 2 (31 minutes)
Scene 1: A square in Pskov, Tomakov palace visible.
1: The very brief prelude is a good combination of calm and agitation, the latter being the sole motivation of the chorus that follows ** as the Pskovans await the arrival of Tsar Ivan.
4, 9, 11: Olga comes on rather well with a lyrical arioso ** in which she contemplates how she knows so little about her parents. She ends up in a mini-duet with one of the wet nurses which has one fleetingly good tune just before the people come back on to greet the Tsar’s arrival *. The situation eventually ends with a single Boris Godunov-esque explosion as the scene ends which is probably the one magnificent moment in the opera ***.
Scene 2: A room in Tomakov’s palace.
13, 24, 26: Yet another three minute long intermezzo * followed by a dialogue between Tomakov and Tsar Ivan which has a very melodic orchestral accompaniment although the vocal lines are rather dry (Tsar hymn theme shows up). After discussing city affairs, Ivan asks to see the Princess Olga and when they meet they both remark on their similar appearance (the slow opening theme from the overture is brought on in a gentler form) *. There is a nice female chorus at this point ** (the soprano sister of Matuta serves bread to the Tsar). Tomakov and Ivan engage in yet another dialogue, this time regarding Olga’s parentage, when Ivan learns who her real mother is his policy regarding Pskov completely changes and as they all kneel in prayer the orchestra brings things to a conclusion.
ACT 3 (40 minutes)
Scene 1: In the forest around Pskov.
0, 5, 9: The royal hunt * is brassy and oddly frolicking, a bouncier piece than usual from the orchestra (also long, at about five minutes). Notice also the quotations from the Magic Fire Music, which continue into another solemn feminine chorus in the distance *. Olga comes on waiting for Mikhail Tucha (remember him?). He arrives and they duet (what else?) *. This is not nearly so good as their first outing, but it does have a single solid, if mild, good tune, mostly from Olga.
15: The brief abduction sequence is rather scary in its own way, albeit very fast * (all of about eighty seconds). Matuta spares Tucha from immediate death, choosing instead to leave him to the elements as Olga is spirited away by his men.
Scene 2: Ivan’s camp on the Medednya river.
16, 22, 24, 32, 33, 35, 37: The 24-minute long finale starts with Ivan thinking paternally about Olga *. He soon learns that she has been kidnapped by Matuta, who he turns on furiously *. Olga is ordered in by the Tsar, who addresses her as Olga Ivanova, which, I suppose, is actually her proper title. Olga’s response is filled with fear ** as she begs him to save her from Matuta. He promises to bring her with him to Moscow and that Tucha will be imprisoned, not executed, for his revolt. The best music here is Olga’s rather uncharacteristically sorrowful but lovely vocal line as she pleads for Tucha, the orchestration only rarely rising above the level of minimal accompaniment (although there are references to the overture). She tells her father that she has loved Tucha since her childhood, and begs for even greater clemency *. Tucha and his men besiege the camp **, Olga observes and is eventually shot on accident. Suddenly there is an almost magical passage of orchestral music **, but it is very brief (all of thirty seconds). For the last four minutes of the opera Ivan mourns Olga and then there is a wrap up final chorus of great sobriety *. Orchestral grand crescendo, curtain.
There are three things that are frankly weird (not bad mind you) about this opera: 1) Most of the music is very sedate, almost sleep inducing, albeit good, and the best of the music consists of arioso, duet, choral, and occasionally orchestral passages. 2) The plot is just as slow in spite of the relative brevity of the opera (barely over two hours) and oddly enough there is actually very little padding (mostly choral sequences and orchestral intermezzos). 3) There really isn’t much of a plot to begin with: it is just a military siege complicated by a love triangle (which isn’t even a plot factor in the second act) and a paternity case which isn’t conclusively solved until the final curtain, both of which revolving around the not so terribly interesting personage of Olga (to me at least) who, although she gets a lot of stage time, is oddly distant. The other characters, excluding her uncle by marriage Tomakov, are really not on long enough for us to get to know them at all (Ivan himself appears in only two tableaux out of six and he is probably the best characterized of the remaining members). The heroic love interest Tucha, who is admittedly convincing as both a lover and a rebel for instance, literally sings two love duets with Olga and a choral-aria in which he enlists the townsmen into rebellion before the final scene siege where he does get around a minute of vocalization, that is it! The death of Olga as a result of the attempted siege by Tucha is almost a dramatic cliche. It resolves little and other than the tragic effect of killing off the female lead it is also needless. And yet, this is probably the only one of Rimsky’s operas that isn’t mystical, magical, or fantastic (in the sense of fantasy) and the characters (albeit not on stage that much) are recognizably human from beginning to end. At least there aren’t any potions. A beta.