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Beauty Pageant at Czar’s Bride

Yekaterina KRETOVA

17 October 2003

The man in black ruined it all

Do you know the producer of Russia’s very first beauty pageant? The name’s Ivan the Terrible. Of the overall field of 2,000 young hopefuls from the cross-section of the 16th century Russian society the monarch handpicked 12 finalists, all vying for the honorary and dangerous title of Princess and the status of the Czar’s spouse. That’s, in a nutshell, the real story behind The Czar’s Bride historical drama by May and of the hugely popular opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Czar’s Bride was recently staged by the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow by director Ivan Popovski, conductor Vladimir Ponkin and set designer Alla Kozhenkova.

Even though the Vishnevskaya Centre is essentially an educational institution, it has also been used as a concert venue for a second season now. And still, this was the Centre’s first major opera production complete with a real-life hall with balconies and a royal box in the middle, a pit and a deep stage. This is a scaled-down opera theater though with a full-size lineup of winds that is short on strings resulting in an inevitable loss of sound balance – a big problem that is being valiantly handled by conductor Vladimir Ponkin. Ponkin has had his full share of bottlenecks before successfully making do without an orchestra pit at Gelikon Opera where he somehow managed to balance out the strings and winds and all but cover up the faulty violins and violas which always stick out in chamber outfits. Discounting these minor shortfalls, Maestro Ponkin flawlessly steered the orchestra through Rimsky-Korsakov’s score underscoring all harmonic bells and whistles the opera abounds in.

In his adaptation of the Czar’s Bride which has traditionally been seen as a psychological opera, director Ivan Popovsky offers a fascinating combination of psychology and the traditional operatic conventionalism. The actors are at their very best singing their hearts out at one moment and coming to a standstill at another either waving their arms with clockwork synchronicity or moving around (mostly backwards), like sleepwalkers do. All this is pretty much justified though since the ensembles sound very clean and in perfect harmony and you can also make out every single word they sing which is certainly not something you can hear very often these days. The Macedonian director introduces an all-new character here: the shadow of a man clad in a black cowl (Vazgen Oganessian) that, naturally, symbolizes evil forces. Even though listening closely to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music you will be quick to realize that it has nothing at all to do with dark forces, it is only about people entangled in their own passions. Well, people in black hoods always look great on stage so why not throw one in too? All the more so given the perfect way the man in black stands out against Alla Kozhenkova’s snow-white backdrop of a transformer staircase, tall candlesticks, a table and chairs all made of semitransparent glass as if covered with hoarfrost. The ice is meant to cool the red-hot passions which is all the more apt since, due more to organizational, rather than conceptual reasons, the choir scenes that normally serve to stabilize the plot’s emotional charge are all gone here.

Singers are the main thing in opera however and the two central male characters are sung by Alexander Kasyanov (Gryaznoi) and Sergei Balashov (Ivan Lykov) who, like many other graduates of the Moscow Institute of Performing Arts (RATI), are more actors than singers even though both very obviously hold good promise of further growth as actors and singers. Oksana Lesnichaya (Marfa) boasts an expressive and strong voice with excellent highs but extremely unstable intonation, which was probably due to her emotional strain. And also her very unfortunate failure to properly get across the final scene where her character goes insane. This, however, might well be the director’s fault.

Oksana Korniyevskaya (Lyubasha) was a very welcome highlight with her profound contralto with excellent highs, impressive acting talent, good taste and sense of measure all attesting to her artistic excellence. Energetically, Lyubasha became the opera’s center point well deserving the red sundress Galina Vishnevskaya originally designed as a red banner expressly for Marfa.

The Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre’s top-notch inaugural production gives one ample reason to say that Moscow now has one more opera to be proud of.