Program Twelve: The Tsar’s Bride
About the Program
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride represents a turning point in the composer’s oeuvre that surprised friend and foe alike. Premiered in 1899 at Savva Mamontov’s Private Opera in Moscow, it marked his return to the historical genre, a quarter of a century after his operatic debut, The Maid of Pskov, in 1873. At a superficial glance, the opera would seem to offer precisely what one would expect from classic Russian opera: a subject drawn from the time of Ivan the Terrible, opportunities to showcase ancient customs and folk songs, and even an appearance of the “Slava” tune made famous by Beethoven and Mussorgsky. These aspects, however, relate only tangentially to what the composer was trying to achieve in this work.
The peculiar nature of The Tsar’s Bride can already be sensed from its libretto, which, like The Maid of Pskov, is based on a play by Lev Mey (1822–62) and inspired by history. Like King Henry VIII in England, Tsar Ivan IV of Russia had many wives, more than the church would condone. The first two, Anastasia and Maria, died at the ages of 30 and 25, respectively; both were suspected to have been poisoned. Soon after Maria’s death in 1569, Ivan’s loyal troops, the oprichniks, were ordered to scour the country for potential new matches. In contrast to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Romanovs drew their fiancées from Western European royalty, in those days it was still common for the Russian ruler to marry a bride from within the Empire and to employ the Byzantine tradition of the “bride-show” to choose one. On this occasion, the oprichniks reportedly presented no fewer than 2,000 suitable maidens to their sovereign. Ivan chose Marfa Sobakina, a merchant’s daughter from Novgorod, and simultaneously selected a partner by the name of Yevdokiya Saburova (the opera’s Dunyasha) for his heir. But in spite of examinations by the court physician, Yelisei Bomelius, and the protection of the tsar’s most trusted circles, Marfa’s health began to decline rapidly after the bride-show; she died within days of the marriage, fueling the tsar’s paranoia and providing pretext for torture and executions.
Such dramatic episodes understandably sparked the imagination of later generations. In both The Tsar’s Bride and The Maid of Pskov, Mey wrote fictional plots to “explain” the historical events, but the differences between the two works are significant. In The Maid of Pskov, Tsar Ivan is the central protagonist who confronts a popular uprising and delivers an extensive monologue with weighty reflections on his own role in history. In The Tsar’s Bride, by contrast, Ivan is a mute character who appears on stage just once, and the plot is a complex love intrigue culminating in a mad scene of the kind familiar from operas by Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. These differences reflected changes in the political climate: both the play and the opera The Maid of Pskov were produced in the liberal age of Tsar Alexander II, whereas censorship was decidedly more strict at the times when Mey and Rimsky-Korsakov wrote their treatments of The Tsar’s Bride.
Nevertheless, Rimsky-Korsakov’s choice of this particular subject was part of a conscious aesthetic stance. Significantly, after giving his previous works colorful subtitles such as “spring fairy tale,” “magical opera-ballet,” “carol come to life,” The Tsar’s Bride was simply marked “opera.” As he explained to his wife, it represented “a bright and frank turn to singing,” which he considered vital to rescue contemporary opera from the “swamp” in which it threatened to perish. The piece was a determined attempt to prove the continued viability of traditional opera.
As a member of the Mighty Five, Rimsky-Korsakov had never had the opportunity to contemplate a work of this kind. Russian opera, as envisioned by the group’s mentor and ideologue Vladimir Stasov, was defined by the pursuit of realism and the opposition to anything that resembled Italian opera. Stasov had a distaste for plots that centered on love and, as Rimsky-Korsakov later recalled, “recoiled from the word ‘melody’ like the devil from incense.” The use of ensembles, in particular, he denounced as unrealistic. Yet now Rimsky-Korsakov seemed to take particular pleasure in them, writing trios, a quartet, a quintet, and even a brief sextet in his new opera. The Tsar’s Bride also sports a few moments resembling a fugue, which Stasov considered the pinnacle of dry, German academicism. Contrary to Wagnerian ideals, which were increasingly in vogue in late-1890s Russia, The Tsar’s Bride is unapologetically a number opera, with a clear alternation between recitatives and set pieces, even if the orchestra provides a rich tapestry of leitmotifs that pervade both styles.
This radical break with his past was prompted not only by his dissatisfaction with Stasov’s teaching, but also by a profound pessimism about the future of music. As the 19th century came to a close, Rimsky-Korsakov became increasingly preoccupied with the notion of “decadence,” feeling that his contemporaries were sacrificing certain fundamental principles of music in their quest for innovation. Younger composers like Richard Strauss and Vincent d’Indy were the worst perpetrators, but in retrospect he also found much fault with Richard Wagner and his own compatriots Alexander Dargomyzhsky and Modest Mussorgsky.
The solution, Rimsky-Korsakov believed, would have to be found in “pure melody” and “singing.” A breakthrough in his own vocal writing came in the summer of 1897, when he produced a spate of songs that he considered genuinely suited to the voice, in contrast to his earlier melodic writing, which he now felt had been essentially instrumental in conception. His new vocal ideals were personified by the soprano Nadezhda Zabela, wife of the well-known painter Mikhail Vrubel; her fragile and ethereal sound was a major source of inspiration in this period. With her voice in mind—the ideal Marfa—he would write The Tsar’s Bride in a style he described as “cantilena par excellence.”
The undisputed highlights of the score are Marfa’s two arias: the loving depiction of her childhood romance with Lykov in Act 2, and its distorted reminiscence when all has gone awry in Act 4, which the critic Ernest Newman declared “one of the purest and profoundest expressions of purely melodic ecstasy in the whole of music.” But the work offers much more to enjoy. The ingenue Marfa, who endures her fate passively, even unknowingly, is contrasted with her jealous rival Lyubasha, a strong-willed mezzo who refuses to accept her lover Gryaznoy’s unfaithfulness, and whose powerful outpourings of feeling may well win her the sympathy of the audience. Equally notable is the unaccompanied folk song (or rather, a credible imitation of one) with which Lyubasha is introduced in Act 1. After decades of debate about the appropriate ways to harmonize Russian folk music, the composer chose to dispense with the accompaniment altogether, making the song stand out from its surroundings and contributing to its powerful effect. The opera’s first performers dreaded the prospect of having to sing these long stanzas without any support, but the piece was written in such a way that it was perfectly possible to stay in tune until the orchestra returned.
In spite of all its wonderful singing, however, The Tsar’s Bride was not able to turn the tide of Modernism. In fact, Rimsky-Korsakov himself—ever questioning the premises and the direction of his own work—soon conducted his own experiments with the boundaries of harmony in Kashchei the Immortal (1902) and proved himself an adept Wagnerian in the lush score of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1907). But the newfound lyricism remained and arguably found its most moving expression in The Tsar’s Bride, its retrospective musings a melancholy memento of what music had lost by the turn of the 20th century.
—Rutger Helmers, University of Amsterdam