Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes.
This was the second of three or four operas Rimsky-Korsakov wrote based on plays written by the Russian dramatist Lev Mei. The Maid of Pskov and it’s prologue The noblewoman Vera Sheloga (the later is actually act one of Mei’s play) was another and the last was Servilia, which unlike all the others is set in Ancient Rome and which will hopefully end up on this blog at some point even though it is apparently not that interesting musically apart from it’s final Credo scene. Of the four, this probably has the best music, but also probably the worst plot (Bride was Mei’s first play, Maid his last and it shows). Almost everyone either kills each other or gets poisoned or molested at some point in the opera, it is very pre-MeToo, but what the heck it’s opera darn it! Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov intended this opera to be set in reaction against Wagnerian principles and there is a rare emphasis on vocal beauty and agility in this score given its comparative youth, a style Rimsky called “cantilena par excellence”.
PLOT: Moscow, autumn 1572. The oprichnik Gryaznoi is in love with Marfa, daughter of the merchant Sobakin, although he already has a mistress Lyubasha. Marfa is in turn engaged to Lykov, a boyar. The Tsar, Ivan IV the Terrible, is also in love with Marfa, but he only appears in passing as a silent character in act 2. So everyone loves Marfa. Gryaznoi gets a potion from the Tsar’s physician Bomelej, but Lyubasha gets a counter potion which turns out to be poison. Gryaznoi accidentally gives Marfa the poison, which is slow acting. Lykov’s wedding to Marfa is called off and he is executed so the Tsar can marry her but she dies from the effects of the poison before she can be crowned.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Gregory Gryaznoi’s home, a party in preparation. (53 minutes)
0: The overture *** is world class, probably the best overture ever written for a Russian opera and probably one of the best overtures period. The main theme is similar to that of the Bacchanale in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila and the emotions range from fury to the most tender.
6: Gryaznoi’s aria *** as he painfully contemplates his romantic entanglements in one of the most Italianate arias to ever come out of Russian opera.
16: This is followed by some scenic but mild male drinking chorusing from the Oprichniki *.
18: Lykov’s recounting of his travels in Europe **.
23: The Russian national anthem **, you will recognize it from the coronation scene in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
27: After yet another mild drinking chorus we get a choral-ballet number * which goes on for several minutes and ends on a traditional series of battery chords.
35: The entrance of Lyubasha is subtle and the song she sings to entertain the guests is very sad ** and a cappella.
40: This is followed by a series of recitatives with a clear accompaniment before Lyubasha overhears the private conversation between Bomelej and Gryaznoi in the acquisition of a love potion to use on Marfa **. The number has a subtly terrified underlining accompaniment (something bad will come of all this).
47: The confrontation Lyubasha-Gryaznoi ** has a delicate woodwind/string accompaniment, oddly warm given the tension between the lovers. Watch out particularly for Lyubasha’s final solo outburst as the act ends.
ACT 2: In front of a church and the Sobakin residence. (36 minutes)
0: A tick-tock prelude * (perhaps the most frolicking music so far) introduces a pack of church going women they encounter a chorus of seminarians. Marfa comes on with her friend Dunjasha and governess Petrovna (hints of Eugene Onegin here if you can spot them).
5: Marfa’s first bel canto aria *** gives us an idea of what opera would probably have sounded like if Wagner had never been born. I’m not complaining. It’s also nice to be able to clap after a number in a post-1890 opera, and not just at an act end! We get some back ground about why Lykov went on that trip to Europe, Marfa’s childhood, other personal details on our main character.
14: We get more hints of the Russian national anthem, this time it heralds the mysterious figure of a knight (Ivan IV in disguise). Lykov and Sobakin (Marfa’s father) arrive and a lovely little quartet ensues **. This is also the mid-point of the opera. They go into the house and a tip-toe intermezzo is taken up by the orchestra lasting about two minutes.
19, 27, 28, 33.5: The remainder of the act consists of two monologues for Lyubasha and her duet * with Bomelej, all very sinister, especially the latter which is symbolized by a recurring wicked laugh from the woodwinds. Bomelej offers her a counter potion in engage for sexual favours. The quartet breaks in oddly enough at this point and Lyubasha agrees to the doctor’s demands. Our sympathies lie with this disaffected woman **, deserted for no good reason by her lover for a woman he can never have who doesn’t even want him. The silly quartet comes back on in order for Lykov to leave and Lyubasha and Bomelej finish the act with their terrible packed followed by a two minute odd male choral number. Given the gravity of Lyubasha (a much better act ender) this and several of the other choral numbers must be a mark against the opera for being weird.
ACT 3: A room in the Sobakin residence. (26 minutes)
0, 2, 8: A noble, if flighty, prelude *, a combination of the “God Save the Tsar” theme and fluttering woodwinds. The act opens with a winding scene * between our three main male characters (Sobakin, Lykov, and Grayaznoi), much of it to a low temperature but elegant string/woodwind accompaniment. Sobakin leaves and the other two men engage in a dialogue to much the same music, all of it very agreeable. A family friend, Domna Saburova comes on and tells Sobakin that her daughter Dunyasha has been selected as the Tsar’s bride (she is wrong actually, it is Marfa, otherwise this opera is meaningless. More “God Save the Tsar”, all agreeable but this is probably the most play-like scene in the opera and Saburova herself seems like a guest cameo from Zsa-Zsa Gabor, which if you like that is worth a star I suppose * for the novelty of a society matron in an opera, and one of the few comic relief elements in an otherwise heavy opera.
13, 18, 21, 24: An aria for Lykov **, in its own way rather fetching as he goes through the various stages of denial and reveals to us how terrified he was at the thought that Marfa had been chosen, poor sod, he hasn’t a clue. Grayaznoi prepares drinks for the bridal couple and unintentionally poisons Marfa’s cup. Sinister turns to lush loveliness *. Marfa almost instantly drinks (without saying anything). A lovely ensemble ensues, first with Marfa and Lykov duetting, then Marfa with the other female soloists with Grayaznoi underneath everyone else, then everyone including that silent figure of Ivan IV and a chorus of maidens **. A most bel canto ensemble and yet another opportunity for applause. The messenger of the Tsar arrives and the wedding is off, devastation ensues.
ACT 4: A room in the Tsar’s palace, throne for Tsarevna. (26 minutes)
0, 3, 7, 8, 14, 17, 23: From this point on the opera takes a very sobering tone. The poison takes effect on Marfa and she becomes deathly ill. The prelude depicts this with ornery brass outbursts and tip-toe bassoon and this continues to some extent into the following scene. Her father thinks she is dying of grief, no one realizes that the cup she drank was poisoned, but he gets a rather ardent patch of arioso here *. Watch for the extended low note for the bass. Saburova has apparently taken over lead soprano duties. Gryaznoi brings news of the execution of Lykov for apparently attempting to murder Marfa (which of course isn’t true). The news causes Marfa to go insane **. She passes out, given the others a chance to emote rather strongly ***. Marfa confuses Gryazanoi with Lykov in her delirium. Gryazanoi admits the truth to Marfa, but she barely understands much of anything at this point. Lyubasha confesses her part in the situation and gets killed by Gryazanoi in a jealous rage right in front of Marfa. He himself is then taken off for execution. Marfa’s long delirium takes a theme from the end of the overture ***. The finale sequence is sedate ** as Marfa has one last go at madness until a blast of terror erupts from the orchestra, curtain.
This opera has probably one of the longest delayed entrances for a title character in all opera. We know much about Marfa (or at least what others think of her) before we even meet her, because there is so much build up, but there frankly isn’t enough of her. The last three acts are mercifully short given Rimsky’s tendency to prolong situations in his operas, but the first and longest act also feels rather brief. Although the opera is musically beautiful (and at times drop dead gorgeous) from beginning to end, dramatically it leaves much to be desired. The main character is poorly developed, she is barely present apart from a single 10 minute aria in act 2 until the final act. The other major characters, and even some of the minor ones such as Saburova, are better developed even if the plot is rather stock and highly conventional with standard baritone romantic villain, mezzo mistress murderer with a heart, bass daddy, tenor hero, soprano victim. Only the tenor Bomelej killing everyone via poisons and the like is slightly a novelty. The events leading up to Lykov’s execution for attempted murder are actually more interesting than Marfa’s bizarre yet very bel canto mad scene, and we never actually get to see any of it because it takes place between the third and fourth acts. The real monster seems to be Ivan IV himself, as his forced marriage with Marfa propels the conclusion of a story which would otherwise be nothing more than a love sextangle gone horribly wrong (literally everyone dies except the Tsar). We also never find out anything about the Bomelej-Lyubasha pact as they both disappear after act 2 until the very end. There frankly isn’t the psychological build up for Marfa here as there is with say Lucy Ashton or Lady Macbeth and this mares the effectiveness of the otherwise very good mad scene. Our sympathizes actually tend toward Lyubasha in the first two acts. Marfa is not fleshed out well, but that doesn’t make her death melodically any less beautiful and as I said earlier, this is a very interesting late example of what opera would have looked like had Wagner never been a thing, and that in itself is a treat. Barely an A-.