The Tsar's Bride, Royal Opera House, London

A Russian rarity proves to be a real treasure in a production set amid the trappings of new money
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The Independent Culture

Look away from the stage for a minute and you'll miss him.

Soberly clad in a cashmere coat, his face unreadable behind dark glasses, Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich IV strides through a drab shopping street, his path cleared by six bodyguards. Invisible but for one brief moment in Paul Curran's production of The Tsar's Bride, and entirely absent from the original libretto, he has no need of love potions or poisons. He is omnipotent: feared and revered by his heavies – the oprichniki – and the nouveau riche.

Long regarded as a curiosity piece, Rimsky-Korsakov's 1898 opera on the mysterious death of Ivan the Terrible's third wife is made over as a compelling study of power and powerlessness in Curran's staging. The setting is a dystopic New Russia, a fiefdom of glass and chrome high-rises, rooftop swimming pools, Burberry, Hermès and Dior. The skyline may be state-of-the-art – Kevin Knight's panoramic set designs drew gasps from the first-night audience – but the torture techniques are traditional. This is a world of intimidation and executions, as brutalising to its villains as its victims. As the curtain rises on a blood-spattered Grigory Gryaznoy (Johan Reuter), his hooded, nameless captive expires and is tossed into a laundry trolley. Meanwhile, the Tsar is drawing up a shortlist of women from which to choose his bride.

The plot is crude, even lurid: Lyubasha (Ekaterina Gubanova) loves Gryaznoy, who loves Marfa (Marina Poplavskaya), who loves Likov (Dmytro Popov), who loves her back. When Lyubasha overhears Grigory procuring a love potion from the Tsar's pharmacist, Bomelius (Vasily Gorshkov), she retaliates by procuring poison – swapping the two so that Gryaznoy is the agent of Marfa's long and crazed death at her unwanted wedding to the Tsar. To this broth of thwarted passion, guilt by association and political impotence, Rimsky-Korsakov brings baleful fanfares for brass, gilded harps, vicious marches for the thuggish oprichniki, a feverishly perfumed mad scene for Marfa, and, most surprisingly, a suave and sullen unaccompanied lament for Lyubasha.

What confidence to cast away the orchestra for a strophic song! "Verdi with vodka" is conductor Mark Elder's description of the score, though to my ears the predominant accent is French. The disposition of the instrumentation is arrestingly strange, as though Borodin and Berlioz had collaborated from beyond the grave. Coordination problems aside, this is a riveting performance of a violent, delirious melodrama. From Poplavskaya's febrile mad scene to Gubanova's magnificently desultory lament, Popov's ardent love song and Reuter's disturbingly sexy unravelling, the central quartet is superb, with strong support from Alexander Vinogradov (Malyuta-Skuratov), Anne-Marie Owens (Petrovna), Jurgita Adamonyté (Dunyasha), Paata Burchuladze (Sobakin) and the male chorus of gun-toting enforcers.

To 2 May (020-7304 4000)

Next Week:

Anna Picard is in Leeds for Tim Albery's Opera North Fidelio

Classical Choice

Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de Paris perform Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in concert at London’s Barbican Hall (Tue). Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay are the lovers. Vasily Petrenko conducts the National Youth Orchestra and others in Judith Weir’s We Are Shadows and Mahler’s Symphony No 10 at The Sage, Gateshead (Fri).