Piotr Tchaikovsky: Oprichnik (1874)

Opera in four acts, five scenes. Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

men in black and red cade hats and military uniform
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Although his first public success on the operatic stage, by the time of the first performance the composer had actually grown to hate his work. Much of the first act consists of reused items from Tchaikovsky’s first opera The Voyevoda, and the second act starts with a lovely entr’acte that was possible written by Vladimir Shilovsky, a pupil of Tchaikovsky. Another interesting fact is that the opera has a soloist role for each of the six vocal types, plus an extra soprano and bass. The plot, like so many of Tchaikovsky’s operas, it notable for its darkness, brutality, and sheer barbarity. Almost all of the characters are murdered except the soprano, who is raped off stage by the Tsar on her wedding day. Have fun children….

PLOT: Russia, circa 1570. A bit of history from our resident historian: the Oprichnina were a military guard unit created by Ivan IV of Muscovy, also known as “the terrible”. The opera concerns a young man, Andrei Morozov, who joins the guard in order to rescue his beloved Natalya from an arranged marriage to an old man. Incidentally, Morozov and his mother have been previously been evicted from their home by Natalya’s father Prince Zhemchuzhny. Andrei is sworn into the Oprichnina by Prince Vyazminsky, a deadly enemy of Andrei’s deceased father. Part of the vows for joining the guard includes renouncing women, which Andrei is later able to have revoked by the Tsar, but on the wedding day Ivan sends agents to take Natalya to him privately. Andrei refuses to let his betrothed go, she is taken by force and he is executed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8H4jwr7TCQ

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The garden of Prince Zhemchuzhny. (36 minutes)

0, 9, 14: The prelude * is an awkwardly good item, five and a half minutes long and furious but not particularly interesting except for a single placid theme in the middle of it coming from the woodwinds at first before being stopped and then taken up by the strings. This will return several times throughout the opera. Otherwise it is just framed by a brooding beginning and a furious ending, both of which will return later. This is followed by a dialogue between Zhemchuzhny and Molchan, an elderly man who is to marry his young daughter Natalya. A brief moment towards the very end sounds almost like Rossini, otherwise it is rather humdrum. This is followed by the arrival of Natalya’s bridal cortege to a dark feminine chorus *. She comes on and gives us the low down, she is miserable and hardly wants to go through with the wedding as she loves Andrei. Her miserable little song *, is soprano depression at its best accompanied by an almost haunting high string theme, with a little coloratura throw in toward the end.

19: Basmanov, an alto breeches part, comes on to tell Natalya that Andrei is coming to save her. The chorus is rather more lively here * and Natalya’s vocal line finally develops upon the Italianate themes briefly mentioned in her song, watch especially the horns.

23: Andrei arrives to a flying bout in the strings, he comes with a detachment of the Oprichnina who chorally introduce themselves. It all feels like a mad cap abduction scene in a heavily orchestrated late Rossini opera *.

25: Basmanov and Andrei engage in a series of arioso * in which they discuss Andrei being enlisted into the Oprichnina.

30: Natalya returns with a arioso **, a rather happy piece notable for its harp accompaniment and how loud the soprano is. The best piece in the act.

33: The last number of the act is a maidens’ chorus meant to entertain the sad Natalya (ineffective) which is preceded by a gorgeous but short orchestral passage which has traces of Sibelius’ Finlandia *, or rather Sibelius’ composition has traces of this. The act ends on a series of furious battery chords.

ACT 2: (52 minutes)

Scene 1: The hut of Boyaryna Morozova

0: The entr’acte ** starts with shimmering high strings and a clarinet, followed by a horn and low strings. It is possibly the strongest piece so far, it is also possible that Tchaikovsky didn’t write it but rather his student and friend Vladimir Shilovsky.

5: The Boyaryna’s aria **, a singularly powerful piece. She fears his association with Basmanov, who is already an Oprichnik. She ends grandly.

10, 18: The Andrei-Boyaryna duet * is an okay but far less intense number which is odd because Andrei is questioned by his mother as to his relationship with the Oprichnik and refuses to really answer anything. He also brings money from Basmanov which the old woman refuses. Occasionally Andrei provides some momentary fire but it all just sort of sits there until the Boyaryna goes into a patch of arioso on a singularly soaring melody which is okay and taken up by Andrei. The second half, and thus the scene, ends well **.

Scene 2: A room in the Tsar’s mansion at Aleksandrov.

22, 26, 35, 38, 43, 50: The second scene is a compact number consisting of a sobering prelude * emphasizing the woodwinds at first before turning far more brooding with strings whirling and brass, cymbals crash, along with a choral scena very obviously both the Oprichnina and based on Russian Orthodox chant ** which keeps getting interrupted by some angry music, an aria for Vyazminsky ** (the villain) and then the oath taking sequence, (preceded by the arrival of Basmanov which no one can miss as he is in the only contralto in the building along with a long  and brassy dialogue with Vyazminsky), much of which consists of an aria for Andrei *** which has the most ardent high string theme which brings us into the first moments of the opera that are truly excellent, and the oath taking *** administered by Vyazminsky with choral backing. All in all very satisfactory, especially when Andrei learns that he must reject both his mother and his betrothed (this causes him a great deal of psychological pain which Vyazminsky takes note of), and the finale sequence *** in which the orchestra gets so enraged it drowns almost everything out and then the final joyous chorus ***. A triumph.

ACT 3: A public square in Moscow. (38 minutes)

0: There is supposed to be a three and a half minute long entr’acte here which for some reason is missing. It isn’t particularly eventful at all, starting off brassy and going into some woodwind flourishes all the while getting bits of percussive punctuation here and there before returning to brooding and brassy, but it still seems odd that it is cut from the recording even if it is comparatively ornery, a bit overlong, and really not all that interesting at all. I wouldn’t give it a star honestly even if it was included on this recording. Was it possibly cut in order to fit the entirety of the rest of the recording onto two-80 minute discs? If so, I sort of understand….

3: (0 on the recording) The chorus that follows is just about as boring to be honest but does get a bit more excited as time goes on * turning explosive at times but otherwise rather dull.

7: The choral number takes on a religious tone ** which is an improvement on the banging timpani of just moments before.

10: The Boyaryna comes on to a rather spell-binding recitative ***.

12: A chorus of boys * comes on chasing after a dog. This is entirely filler and rather meaningless really.

13: Natalya comes on and engages in a duet with the Boyaryna **. Although clearly modelled on the act 4 soprano-mezzo duet in Le Prophete (and it is good) it isn’t to the same level but it does come more than half-way. A strong piece overall. Natalya begs the older woman for refuge, she flees her father and elderly fiance. The Boyaryna refuses.

20: Natalya’s father Zhemchuzhny arrives and attempts to take her away from the scene by force. She responds to his threats in the most lovely way ***, a gorgeous aria which although it has no grand tune nevertheless has a beautiful orchestration.

25: The furious but romantic insurrection scene *** in which Andrei arrives, freeing Natalya from her father and incurring the curse of his mother who now discovers his association with the Oprichnina. Parts of this sound like Verdi set to a Russian libretto.

32: The act finale *** as Andrei’s psychological state is given yet another beating by the reaction of his mother.

35: Basmanov tells Andrei to petition the Tsar to release him from his vows to the Oprichnina, and the act ends on one last furious chorus ** as Andrei agonizes. Lots of timpani!

ACT 4: Same as Act 2 Scene 2, but decked out for a wedding. (37 minutes)

0: The act opens with a grand but jovial nuptial chorus **. The tenors take on the melody with the sopranos on a descant and the altos and basses underneath, but lo, the three lower voices take turns with the melody while the sopranos continue the descant.

5: The ballet *, yes this thing has a ballet, but it isn’t terrible and it finishes well.

10: Tchaikovsky briefly goes Verdi on us with the orchestra * but once Andrei makes his announcements to the guests we are back into solid Russian-opera territory, including some attempts at tenor coloratura. It gets better as the sedate but mystic chorus pops in. Andrei is to be released from his Oprichnina vows, but at midnight, until then he is bound to obey any order the Tsar gives him under penalty of losing both Natalya and his own life. The chorus goes into a furious repeat.

17: The bridal duettino ** starts off very ornery but flowers into a longing melody from Natalya. Andrei then comes up to a high string accompaniment taking up her melody and then together.

20: A joyous chorus **. Basmanov comes on and interrupts everything with news of the arrival of Vyazminsky with orders from the Tsar. This is disastrous but occurs while a very happy trumpet voluntary pops up frequently in the orchestra.

25: The music changes gears completely ** (although the trumpet pops up again) as Andrei refuses to execute the Tsar’s order. The chorus freaks out.

27: A musically lovely but dramatically disastrous quartet with chorus *** in which Natalya is taken by force to her interview with the Tsar by Vyazminsky, Andrei is take out to be executed, and Basmanov and the chorus comment on just how gad awful all of this is. Really rather beautiful and with two or three catchy tunes in it, but the music sounds more like a walk in the park in springtime and the lead up to Natalya’s forced abduction in her bridal dress goes without much fanfare at all. .

33: It is only just as Natalya is being led away like Feline in Bambi that the orchestral finally takes to a tragic hue **. Andrei is taken out for execution. The theme from the prelude appears. Vyazminsky tells the suddenly arriving Boyaryna what is happening, she sees the axe fall and falls dead, her curse fulfilled. A brief chorus in honour of Ivan IV and a series of furious battery chords finishes the opera off.

COMMENTS:

The striking thing about Oprichnik is how randomly the musical quality goes from being dreadfully ornery to being magnificently wonderful. It isn’t great by any means, but it is better than what Tchaikovsky thought of it. After the initial production in St. Petersburg, the opera was produced three more times, in Odessa, Kiev, and Moscow, before Tchaikovsky started claiming that he was “revising” it and it remained otherwise unperformed for the remainder of his lifetime, and for the most part dropping out of sight entirely. The first act is by far the worst, bordering on comic opera, but this is probably because it is made up of chunks of an entirely different opera (Voyevoda) which belonged to a completely different genre, namely romantic comedy. The second act of the opera feels just a bit like Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano (particularly the oath scene) but it is also very distinctly Russian. The third act has a rather random setting but is fine and the finale is grand. The fourth act is where everything goes to heck for the characters and everyone basically dies, including to some extent the music which starts to be very merry just when it shouldn’t.

Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s problem with the poor thing was its plot? Although this is ironic because Tchaikovsky himself complied the libretto from an 1843 play of the same name by a certain Ivan Lazhechnikov which had first seen the stage in 1867. Portions of the libretto for act 1 are taken word for word from the opening scene of Voyevoda. I have to admit that the story is rather dreadful (worse than Simon Boccanegra to be honest) even if the music is almost consistently beautiful. Apart from Andrei joining the Oprichnina (and the connecting downward spiral of his psyche from that moment until his execution) there actually isn’t any character development at all. The Boyaryna would be a great maternal characterization on par with Fides or at least a pre-cursor to the Princess in The Enchantress if not for the fact that her motives remain stagnant throughout the opera (she hates the Oprichnina, but ultimately loves her son even if he has betrayed her and she has cursed him). Her death, like her curse, also feels rather tacked on and a wee bit random as the curse happens at the end of act 3 and its fulfillment at the end of the following act. Natalya is a standard virgin in distress who remains in distress (although quite possibly no longer so much of a virgin after her meeting with the Tsar), her father is preoccupied solely with who she is going to marry, and Vyazminsky’s singleminded goal is to destroy Andrei because of his father. The fact that we know nothing of Vyazminsky until over an hour into the opera is rather annoying. In Erkel’s Hunyadi Laszlo we meet the villain rather early in the second act, here we are about half way through the opera before his motives are explained. Throughout he is separate from the main plot, which is the romantic one about Andrei trying to win Natalya from her beastly father. Basmanov has no objective goals and simply is a support for the tenor lead. The other soloist characters only appear once. Overall, three characters have their own objectivist and utterly isolated motivations, only the lovers and Basmanov (the other three of the main cast) are in agreement with each other but only one of the six, Andrei, has a completely fleshed out personality! Although the plot could be nothing but a gamma, if not worse, the music brings it up to a beta. For anyone who loves Tchaikovsky operas or his music in general, this is at least a one time must hear.

REFERENCES:

“The Oprichnik” in The New Penguin Opera Guide, Amanda Holden, editor. Taken from Gerald Abraham’s Tchaikovsky’s Operas. London: Penguin Books, 2001. pp. 939-940.

The Oprichnik  article at Tchaikovsky Research. Wikimedia, last modified 15 February, 2018.  en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/The_Oprichnik.

 

 

 

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