Review: The Tsar's Bride has magnificent singing and acting

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:03am

The Tsar's Bride

Bolshoi Opera

Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Reviewed: March 20

After 13 years, the Bolshoi Opera made a triumphant return to the Arts Festival with the Hong Kong premiere of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. The 1899 work is hugely popular in Russia, yet was little known abroad until recently.

The Tsar's Bride is a tragedy of lives destroyed by jealousy and obsession. It is inspired by the mysterious fate of Ivan the Terrible's third wife, 19-year-old Marfa Sobakina, who died of an unknown malady within weeks of their wedding.

The dissolute Grigory Gryaznoy, one of the oprichniki (the tsar's dreaded secret police), is in love with the innocent Marfa, but she loves only her betrothed, the gentle Ivan Lykov. To win her for himself, Gryaznoy gives Marfa a love potion for which, unknown to him, his discarded mistress, Lyubasha, has substituted poison to kill her rival. Ironically, as soon as Marfa drinks the poison, comes the news that the tsar has chosen her for his new bride, so neither Gryaznoy nor Lykov can have her, and she dies for no reason.

Rimsky-Korsakov's music paints the characters with a sure hand, juxtaposing the lyric purity of Marfa (soprano) and Lykov (tenor) with darker tones for the complex, tormented Gryaznoy (baritone) and Lyubasha (mezzo).

Rozhdestvensky and the splendid Bolshoi Orchestra bring out the score's distinctly Russian flavour and the characteristic rich colours of the orchestration.

The cast give a superb ensemble performance, with magnificent singing matched by convincing acting.

The principals are outstanding: Olga Kulchinskaya's Marfa and Agunda Kulaeva's Lyubasha are equally tragic, Alexander Kasyanov is a forceful Gryaznoy and Oleg Tsybulko an engaging Lykov.