Grisly and extravagant, 'The Tsar's Bride'

November 20, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Reading the novels of Dostoevsky is like undergoing a nervous breakdown in which you can't stop turning the pages. Couple that with the equally extravagant emotions of grand opera and you will get an idea of the experience of the Washington Opera's current production of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride."

This is a grisly tale of lust- and power-crazed times in Imperial Russia under Ivan the Terrible. Griaznoi, a member of the Tsar's guard, uses what he thinks is a love potion to win the heart of the virginal Marfa, the betrothed of Lykov. But he unknowingly gives her a slow poison substituted by Lyubasha, whom Griaznoi once raped and made his mistress. Marfa is then chosen by the Tsar as his bride, but soon -- after Griaznoi has plunged a dagger into her beloved's heart -- she dies, agonizingly, from the poison. In the opera's terrible denouement, Lyubasha -- who has surrendered herself to a perverted doctor to obtain the poison -- confesses and is killed by Griaznoi.

The Zack Brown-designed production is beautiful to look at and intelligent. (The one structure on stage that doesn't look Russian is the home of the German doctor.) The music is idiomatically performed by the orchestra under conductor Woldemar Nelsson.

There is also some extraordinary singing from Barbara Madra, a soprano who stepped in at the 11th hour to sing Marfa, replacing an indisposed Rachel Gettler. She has a huge voice that is never forced, sings beautifully at all dynamic levels, and has the technique to move through her registers effortlessly. There are also two wonderful bass-baritones: Nikita Storojev, in the role of the Tsar's chief henchman, Malyuta; and Gabor Andrasy, as Sabotkin, Marfa's father.

Unfortunately, Arkady Volodos, as the tormented Griaznoi, doesn't have a voice quite powerful enough for the part; George Shirley, as the evil court physician, shows a tenor that is clearly on its last legs; and as Lyubasha, Leslie Richards-Pellegrini displays a mezzo-soprano that -- despite a rich lower register -- betrays some discomfort at the top.


What: Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride."

When: Nov. 21 at 7 p.m., Nov. 24 and 27 at 8 p.m., Nov. 29 at 2 p.m.

Where: The Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington.

Cost: $80, orchestra; $135, box.

Ticket information: (202) 416-7800 or (800) 87-OPERA.

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