Royal Opera House; Linbury Studio, London
A mad bride about to expire, a murderous father, a poisoned lover and a crazed rival, to say nothing of a silent, princely groom and a throng of loopy guests dressed in themed purple: this is not a good recipe for a royal wedding, and she a commoner too. Yet it offers a great finale to an opera, in this case Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride (1899), popular in Russia but scarcely known here. The relatively simple story may have been circuitously told – it lasts well over three hours, the libretto a thing of shreds and patches – but the end when it comes, played out in this calamitous scenario, is truly anguished.
This is the Royal Opera's first staging and for most of us a first encounter with the work. It has its weaknesses. Take your mind off the music for a moment and the same tune seems to be playing again (and often is, since the Russian "Slava" chant familiar from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is used repeatedly). The plot has all the energy of an uncoiled Slinky. Not one of the characters, except the maligned, lovesick Lyubasha, is more than a cardboard cutout. Nevertheless this is an ingenious production, with a predominantly Russian cast, not the finest maybe but more than adequate, and excellent orchestral playing under the assured and persuasive baton of Mark Elder.
The four-act tragedy of dark fantasy dressed up as history tells of the prelude to the brief marriage of Ivan the Terrible to his third wife, Marfa (Marina Poplavskaya), a merchant's daughter. She already loves someone else and is subject to the grisly attentions of a third, the nasty Gryaznoy. In a Make Me a Supermodel kind of contest, the tsar chooses her from 2,000 pretty girls on offer. Drugged by a rival – never mind which, you get the drift – she loses her senses, providing the opera with a mawkish mad scene.
Director Paul Curran has placed the action in the "new" Russia, chillingly rendered in every detail of Kevin Knight's lavish sets, lit by David Martin Jacques. A key scene takes place at night, poolside, on a rooftop with no escape. Glimmering lights of other penthouses, where similarly corrupt oligarchs presumably plot and scheme, form a glamorous backdrop. It's tawdry, flashy, trashy and menacing. Bodyguards dress in black suits and expensive shades, bulging with muscle and gun. It's a clever solution and gives an exciting dimension to this ponderous work, in which the "happy couple" remain as vital as miniature plastic figures on top of a wedding cake.
Poplavskaya's cool, contained yet febrile presence suited the title role, though her voice was not at its best; moments of poor intonation and dryness were no doubt down to first-night nerves. The Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova chilled the heart as Lyubasha, blowsy and broken, who dominates Act I then barely gets a look in. Midstage, where she often stood, her voice lost power, but she gave an expressive account and had by far the most interesting role. The Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov had a piercing, acidulated timbre as the hero Likov, inasmuch as there is a hero, but seemed a dolt. The villain Gryaznoy was well sung by the Danish bass baritone Johan Reuter. Shunning the lubricious offerings of his old girlfriend he uses the unlikely excuse that he has to "hurry away to matins", which is nearly on a par with "exit pursued by a bear".
Rimsky's score, scintillatingly orchestrated, is rich in broad, folk-inspired melodies and soured harmonies, with voluptuous writing for harp, sinister muted brass, insistent, thudding timpani and keening woodwind. It's not a masterpiece. The set pieces tend to be awkward, with odd fugal forays and other bookish devices, but the choruses are rousing, the Royal Opera chorus at their energetic best, and some of Rimsky's effects have power to dazzle. There were empty seats. Try it. The Radio 3 broadcast is on 11 June at 6pm.
OperaShots, ROH2's annual programme of new short chamber works performed downstairs in the Linbury Studio, selects participants from beyond usual operatic boundaries. This year's double bill opened with The Tell-Tale Heart by Stewart Copeland, ex-pin-up drummer and founder of the Police, who provided his own libretto after Edgar Allan Poe, as well as music. Terry Jones, best known as a Python, wrote and directed The Doctor's Tale with music by Anne Dudley, one-time collaborator with Paul McCartney, Elton John and the Pet Shop Boys.
Both pieces were given streamlined performances, well directed and designed, and deftly played by the Chroma ensemble. In the Copeland, conducted by Robert Ziegler, Richard Suart was versatile and hideous as the narrator. Copeland's film-score background (Wall Street, Rumble Fish) means he can set a mood instantly The score was an agreeable collage of honkytonk and jazz and mesmeric drumming.
Dudley, whose own cinema credits include The Full Monty and Bright Young Things, brought similar, more sculpted fluidity to Jones's barking libretto. A dog (Darren Abrahams) works as a doctor until red tape halts his career. Tim Murray conducted the witty score. There's a glorious howling hound trio, a smart canine answer to Rossini's "Cat Duet", and a doggy heaven full of scudding, cotton-wool clouds. It's a funny and generous morality tale. If we are left with a dilemma, it's how to describe these new works, in which music accompanies rather than leads, entertains rather than innovates. Are they operas? Does it matter? As A Dog's Tale reminds us, sometimes it's better to accept and enjoy rather than analyse and destroy. Next year's composers include ex-Walker brother Scott Walker and the Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon. No doubt we'll ask the same questions.
Despite a larger than expected funding cut, the Royal Opera has mustered an ambitious season for 2011-12, announced last week, with five new main-stage productions instead of a hoped-for seven, two opera premieres (by Judith Weir and Tarik O'Regan) and a line-up of star names, including Plácido Domingo, Eva-Maria Westbroek (who triumphed in Anna Nicole) and tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Puccini's Il trittico, directed by Richard Jones, and Berlioz's Les Troyens, directed by David McVicar head the bill, with a Mozart-Da Ponte cycle and Wagner's Die Meistersinger among revivals. General booking opens on 5 July.
The 117th BBC Proms season was also revealed: 74 concerts in the Albert Hall plus a dozen in Cadogan Hall. Crowd-pullers include Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, a late-night solo Bach recital by Nigel Kennedy, Martha Argerich and many more. The teenaged Benjamin Grosvenor plays on First Night, with Lang Lang and Susan Bullock creating party hijinks on the Last Night.
Beyond the usual gimmicks, there's plenty of serious and tempting programming and no shortage of Brahms and Liszt. My instant choices include, in July, Rossini's William Tell (Prom 2), in August, late-night Steve Reich (Prom 36) and in September, Colin Davis conducting the LSO in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (Prom 67). Tickets go on sale on 7 May. Promming tickets still cost only £5. Let me say that again: £5. Amazing but true. You can now sample some of the greatest marvels created by mankind for less than the cost of a packet of fags. And so far no government has decided it's bad for your health. You may even feel better.
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