Georges Bizet: Ivan IV (1862)

Opera en cinq actes. Running time: 2 hours 41 minutes.

SETTING: Circassia and the Moscow Kremlin, 1561. Marie (soprano) is the daughter of Prince Temrouk (bass) of Circassia and sister of Igor (tenor). Marie is kidnapped by Russian soldiers and taken to Tsar Ivan IV (bass) where she is only saved from resisting him by Olga (mezzo-soprano) the sister of the Tsar, although by the next act they are married. Igor plots to assassinate Ivan with a scheming boyar named Yorloff (bass-baritone), but learns that Marie has actually fallen in love with the Tsar.

Complete Opera:

<<Ouvre ton coeur>> (interpreted by tenor Michel Senechal):


ACT 1: A village in the Caucasus, by a well. (35.5 minutes)

1: Puison, mes soeurs The prelude and opening feminine chorus **, gentle, sedate, and a good tune.

6: Marie’s duet with the young Bulgarian *, although it takes a long time to get there, when it finally flowers it is very good, with a strongly Mozart-influenced melody.

12: Marie’s encounter with the mysterious (and disguised) Tsar Ivan turns in a fine bass aria *, followed by a return of the opening chorus.

20: A Russian officer arrives and orders Marie’s father Temrouk to give her up to marry the Tsar. He refuses and she is kidnapped  after a good ensemble *. This is followed by a sad male chorus.

25: Temrouk’s aria ** has a waltzing Gounodesque tune.

28, 33: Victoire! Victoire! Marie’s brother Igor arrives and their father fills him in on what has just transpired. There is one muscular chorus **. They draw lots to see who will be sent to kill the Tsar, it is Igor, of course **. The act ends on a reprisal of this one energetic chorus and a quotation from Lohengrin (act 3 prelude).

ACT 2: A banquet in the Kremlin. (35 minutes)

0: Sonnez, eclantes fanfares! The opening scene * is a combo of features one after another: short orchestral introduction followed by a chorus, this time male praising Ivan on his victory over the Tartars, and then organ music and Ivan’s monologue, prisoners are brought in but no clemency is given, followed by a feminine chorus and then some more mildly agreeable angst from Ivan as he congratulates Yorloff for uncovering an assassination attempt and he orders a song.

7: The Song of the Young Bulgarian **, quiet, consisting of three verses and a lala male chorus refrain. Not haunting or overtly dramatic, just enjoyable.

10: Ivan’s war song *, this was revised four times by Bizet.

17, 23, 29, 32: The act finale **, the longest number in the opera, begins with a chorus of potential brides being brought in * like they are contestants of the Westminster Dog Show. There is a long exchange in which Ivan choses between Yorloff’s daughter Sophia and Marie, the latter wins which enrages Yorloff and terrifies Marie, who refuses to take off her veil. It leads to a brief climax followed by a despairing aria from Marie * leading to another mildly climactic ensemble. Suddenly ** we get some organ music and a religious procession. Amongst the people is Ivan’s sister Olga who takes Marie as her charge (this plot point is slightly meaningless as we will never see Olga again but it is a dramatically effective scene). The final ensemble before the curtain falls is especially lovely ** (it appears to be a deflated first draft of <<Brahma divin Brahma>> from the first and second acts of Les pecheurs de perles) with the tenors taking up the melody from the sopranos who are on a descant. Although it is never fully powerful enough to stun (except perhaps on first exposure), it is nevertheless a wonderful finish to any act.

ACT 3: The Courtyard of the Kremlin. (27 minutes)

0: The act opens to one of the worst faux-Meyerbeerian waltz choruses (think the start of act 2 of Prophete but otherwise meh) which is supposed to be the wedding chorus for Ivan and Marie (married so soon, Olga should have done a better job protecting that girl). The chorus is tuneful *, but heavily derivative and if Bizet was attempting local colour it could only be Swiss. This goes on for nearly five minutes.

5: The cortege march *, it will pop up a lot like a regal leitmotif. It eventually turns into a chorus. Igor has already appeared on the scene and he runs into his father Temrouk.

10, 15: The Igor-Temrouk duet has two solidly good tunes, both in Igor’s vocal line (particularly an enchanting if short descant for which I will give this **) otherwise it is more no star because the rest is very boring and in between the initial melody and its reprisal (as a trio) there is a long explanatory recitative taken up by Temrouk (which does develop into a worthwhile harp introduced climax). Igor’s arioso is slightly more bearable * and climaxes well into the reprisal.

22: Yorloff comes on and gains the support of the father-son duo, who have no idea that Marie is the new Tsarvitsa. This is almost totally inert (only Igor’s delicate tenor lines break up the monotony *). This is all broken up by a return (off-stage) of the cortege marching chorus. The act ends on a confused trio con coro, canon fire.

ACT 4: A balcony off the palace garden leading to the bridal chamber. (47.5 minutes)

1: The Young Bulgarian does yet another con coro turn * (this sounds better when he’s a tenor and not a mezzo-soprano).

3: Marie has fallen in love with Ivan and tells us this first in the most melodic, albeit mild, terms *.

7, 11: The second and third parts of Marie’s aria ** are more in the style of a bel canto number, the chorus joins her briefly in the third section **. Ivan comes on and take Marie to a boat that will take them up the Volga (impossible as the Volga is at best 175 kilometres from Moscow, and then to the north). There is a long dialogue between Yorloff and Ivan which musically doesn’t go anywhere but in which the former conflates Marie with the biblical Judith.

20: Igor to the musical rescue (again) ** followed by the distant reprisal of the chorus from the top of the act.

26, 31, 34: The Igor-Marie duet **. This is actually the first time in the opera in which they share the stage. She confesses her love for Ivan * and he is about to kill her when she reminds him that he promised their deceased mother to be his sister’s protector. Igor forgives his sister recounting this promise **. This is followed by a mild accompaniment and ariosos for Igor and Marie.

38.5: Ivan comes on with Yorloff (who condemns Igor). Ivan believes that Marie has decided to betray him in a sad but impassioned arioso *.

42: A glorious ensemble in two parts ***. First, Ivan can not believe that Marie has betrayed him. Second, the Kremlin is on fire, Ivan condemns both Igor and Marie to death, goes temporarily insane, and collapses. Yorloff orders everyone on their knees, and the act ends.

ACT 5: (17 minutes)

Scene 1: The Walls of the Kremlin.

0: The chorus and two sentries pace about to music that sounds a bit like Carmen *. Temrouk comes on and gets a news briefing from one of the sentries. Is the Tsar dead or isn’t he? In any case Temrouk’s two children are going to be very soon.

7: Ivan comes on (so he is defiantly not dead), leading to a rapid duet between the two basses as the bells toll the premature death of the Tsar*. They rush off to the palace.

Scene 2: A Hall in the Kremlin.

12: The last seven and a half minutes of the opera feel very, well, not Bizet. Possibly because it was not orchestrated by him (in fact this final scene was left only in sketch form). The courtiers come running in demanding that both Igor and Marie be executed immediately. Yorloff declares himself regent as the Tsar has apparently lost his mind. Ivan comes on almost immediately and orders Yorloff’s arrest and execution and frees Igor and Marie. The finale ensemble begins with Igor and Marie * in a lovely bit of thanksgiving. Ivan gives an address. The opera ends on a 90 second reprisal of the wedding cortege chorus and then orchestral fanfare to the final curtain.


It is hard for me to write about this opera. There are things that I really love, such as the entire first act, the second act finale from the arrival of Olga to curtain, the one big theme in the Igor-Temrouk duet in act 3 and the entire fourth act. I also love the song of the young Bulgarian, but more so when it is sung by a tenor (as originally scored) rather than by a mezzo-soprano (as adapted by Bizet for his cantata Vasco de Gama). What I don’t like has more to do with the plot than with the music. Too many issues (Ivan’s bout of madness, Yorloff’s desired revenge, Igor’s momentary intent to murder his own sister and his relenting, the marriage of Marie and Ivan after she entrusted herself to Olga in the previous scene) are all extremely sudden and without any logical cause backing them up. Musically the only truly ornery bits revolve around Yorloff, yet by act five one can tell that little of the scoring, and essentially none of the orchestration is actually Bizet’s and the whole thing just seems like a tacked on resolution because the poor thing really needs to get wrapped up. In the end, I can’t help but recognize that a potentially great opera that was never really given a change is right in front of me. B-.

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