Opera in Concert already had Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko on its performance roster when it scheduled The Tsar's Bride for this, the company's 30th anniversary season. It was risky programming, since the work's effectiveness characteristically relies to a large degree on a richly colored orchestral score. The composer regarded the opera as an experiment in the melding of traditional 19th-century Italian structural elements with a Wagnerian approach to the orchestra, musically sophisticated recitatives and (again characteristic) elements of Russian folk music. The orchestra was missing here, of course, though Raisa Nakhmanovich, music director for this production, nonetheless gave a good sense of what the composer was after with a piano accompaniment that could have stood alone as a performance.
If ever an opera performance needed surtitles, this hopelessly tangled tale of love, deception, jealousies, potions, poisons and death is it. OinC gamely tried to summarize the story in its program, but, with all the recitatives and intricate twists and turns in the plot, it was nigh impossible to follow the performance unless you spoke Russian.
The upside, though, was that Rimsky-Korsakov's marvellously melodic music and the singing became the main focus--and there was much to enjoy in this. Three of the principals, unknown to me, were born and trained in eastern Europe. Especially impressive was bass Nikolay Cherkasov (Sobakin), who boasts one of those richly resonant, Slavic basses that's unfailingly musical and seems to have no lower limits. Soprano Marina Shemesh and mezzo Margaret Maye (Marfa, the Tsar's bride, and her rival, Lyubasha) were also real finds. Both have voices with a wide range, distinctive and attractive timbres and a flair for tonal coloring. Two of their numbers remain in my mind: Lyubasha's sad love song in Act I, sung a cappella, was hauntingly beautiful while Marfa's final aria in Act IV was simply ravishing. Hopefully, Canadian audiences will have more opportunities to hear these three fine singers.
For other roles, OinC gave welcome assignments to young singers at the outset of their careers. Baritone Michael Meraw (Gryaznoy) and tenor Keith Klassen (Lykov) both displayed voices and dramatic sensibilities of great promise. Tenor Neil Aronoff (Skuratov), mezzo Melinda Delorme (Dunysha) and soprano Ani Imastounian (Saburova) made their mark in smaller roles, and helped cement the remarkably tight sense of ensemble in this difficult work. As is typical of Russian opera, the chorus was an important element of the musical (if not the dramatic) fabric, and the OinC chorus, under the direction of Robert Cooper, did not disappoint.