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
PLOT: Pskov, 1570. Similarly to Simon Boccanegra, much of the opera concerns the paternity of the primary female character, Olga Tokmakova, who is the product of an adulterous affair between the sister-in-law of the man she believes to be her father (Prince Tokmakov), Vera Shaloga, and Ivan the Terrible. Her aunt pretended that she was her mother to protect her sister from the wrath of her husband Prince Shalog.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (52 minutes)
0: The overture * is over six and a half minutes long and is a good brooding piece, much quieter than it could be.
Scene 1: The garden of the palace of Prince Tokmakov.
18, 21, 25: After flutterings about from the orchestra and the wet nurses and other women on stage which morphs into a long passage of recit 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 part from the wide range of the rather sedate but effective orchestration. There is one patch of orchestration, a mild climax, as one of the wet nurses goes into more ornery recitative/arioso but otherwise the whole affair is rather dull. 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, 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 **. 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, but still very brooding. 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, 41, 47: The scene change occurs during a highly chromatic intermezzo * which is to the same basic theme as the end of the previous scene but it eventually does race about before going back into sedation. The people come on to perhaps the first time cymbals are utilized. A messenger from Novgorod arrives and tells them that Ivan has come to do to them what he did to Novgorod. 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. Tomakov tries to warn against rebellion. Tucha’s arioso con coro (apparently based on a folk song) of rebellion is oddly restrained in orchestration while the vocal line is very energetic and sometimes even noble * until the cymbals pop in again for yet another outing. The male chorus of rebels goes off into the distance 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.
0: The very brief prelude * is a good combination of calm and agitation, the latter being the sole motivation of the chorus that follows **.
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 some Boris Godunov-esque explosions as the scene ends **.
Scene 2: A room in Tomakov’s palace.
13, 16, 24, 26, 30: Yet another intermezzo * followed by a dialogue between Tomakov and Tsar Ivan which has a very melodic orchestral accompaniment although the vocal lines are rather dry *. After discussing city affairs Ivan asks to see the Princess Olga and when they meet they both remark on their similar appearance *, there is a nice female chorus at this point **. 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 *.
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. Yet another feminine chorus comes on from the distance *, this time rather pray-like. 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.
15: The brief abduction sequence is rather scary in its own way, albeit very fast *, but I must complain that making both Tucha and Matuta tenors does make the vocal distribution of the opera awkward even if neither has much to do.
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, the orchestration only rarely rising above the level of minimal accompaniment, although there is one snatch of good melody from the flutes. 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. For the last five 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). 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. A beta.