Further exploration of the Russian Melodiya vaults gave us this reissue of two historical recordings of fascinating but little-known opera's from Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff. The Tsar's Bride dating from 1899 may be Rimsky-Korsakoff's most popular opera in Russia, abroad it remains still very much a gem to discover. Even rarer is Mlada, a mythological opera-ballet extravaganza with a Wagnerian, Ring-influenced orchestration, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, wherein, curiously, the title role is taken by a dancer rather than a singer.
With The Tsar's Bride Rimsky-Korsakoff deliberately took distance from his usual Russian fantasy and folklore subjects in favor of a more traditional opera with a historical background - in this case a drama of passion set in 16th-century Russia under the reign of Ivan The Terrible. Stylistically, too, The Tsar's Bride comes closer to classical western operatic writing, with its overture, arias and ensembles. It didn't bring Rimsky-Korsakoff the international recognition as a major opera composer he had hoped for, but when strongly cast it's nonetheless a compelling work.
And that's exactly what the current Melodiya reissue offers: a sterling cast from Moscow's Bolshoi Opera in 1973, including two of the most distinguished Russian female voices of the era, Galina Vishnevskaya (recently deceased) and Irina Arkhipova. Their performances as Marfa and Lyubasha respectively, remain supreme models of characterization, phrasing and shading. The men are equally first-rate: the superb basses Evgeny Nesterenko and Boris Morozov, the flawless baritone Vladimir Valaitis, and the dramatic tenor Vladimir Atlantov. In spite of Fuat Mansurov's steady but rather neutral conducting, this Tsar's Bride remains a prime choice, testament to the Bolshoi Theatre as Russia's foremost opera house of that period and outshining as a company performance Valery Gergiev's more recent effort with the Mariinsky Theatre. The Bolshoi production is moreover agreeably recorded for its age, even if Melodiya didn't take the trouble to remaster the tapes for this reissue. (Liev Steinberg's 1943 Bolshoi recording is equally worth tracking down, but is somewhat let down by its sound quality.)
The 1962 recording conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov is the only CD version of a complete Mlada available. The sole alternative is the video of a Bolshoi Opera production from the late 1980s, led by Alexander Lazarev and starring Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili in the eponymous role. The orchestral suite of dances and processions taken from the opera can be found on various CD collections, but this reissue of the full-length opera is most welcome. It's an amazing work, melodious, brilliant in color, and alternating singing with purely orchestral and dance passages. Its pagan Russia fantasy-setting à la Ruslan and Ludmilla populated by kings, gods, vikings, evil sorcerers, ghosts, and witches may be of little consequence in itself, yet it inspired Rimsky-Korsakoff to some of his most aurally compelling experiments in harmony and instrumentation - something which wouldn't be lost on Stravinsky. Scored for a huge orchestra, featuring augmented winds and brass section and various exotic instruments (among others lyres and brass panpipes) used to accompany the often spectacular stage action which included among others an appearance of queen Cleopatra's court but also an earthquake and flood. The singers featured on Mlada are solid, if little more and lack the distinction or the beauty of the team gathered for Tsar's Bride. Svetlanov's conducting is however first-class and so are the orchestra (one suspects the Bolshoi Theatre's Orchestra?) and the choirs which play an essential part in this opera. Considering its age and origin, the sound quality is quite acceptable.
A shame then that Melodiya didn't take the opportunity for these reissues to include libretti. Instead we only get a synopsis in Russian and in a sometimes poorly translated English. Spread over three CDs the Mlada set offers the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes in A minor recorded by Svetlanov with his State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the USSR in 1984 as a delightful bonus. For all opera and especially Russian opera enthusiasts these sets can be warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman