OPERA / Good tunes, brainless story: Raymond Monelle hears a rare concert performance of Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik by Scottish Opera at the Usher Hall

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The Independent Culture
Western acquaintance with Russian opera is based on two quite exceptional works, Yevgeny Onegin and Boris Godunov. Alongside these, the post-Glinka era spawned a large repertoire of run-of-the-mill pieces, with folk-style melodies prettily harmonised, plenty of stock situations, scenes of old Moscow and brainless plots.

Tchaikovsky's The Oprichnik, alas, is one of these. It was almost contemporary with Boris Godunov; but where Mussorgsky was able to use a Pushkin play as basis for a series of powerful tableaux that epitomised the old Russia, Tchaikovsky, with a much inferior text, presents a maiden betrothed to the wrong man, a mother's curse on her wayward son, a wedding feast that leads to bloody execution, and other cardboard items straight from the do-it-yourself opera kit.

Into this farrago the great naive musician poured an abundance of memorable tunes, gutsy climaxes and infectious charm. There is a harmonic adroitness, veering off chromatically and threading dark and subtle colours into the simplest of melodies, that surely started with Ruslan and Ludmila, Glinka's pacesetter for the whole century in Russia.

The Oprichnik was surely worthy of this single concert performance. Scottish Opera convened a strong and in many ways ideal cast, with the authority of Mark Ermler at the helm. Unfortunately, they were accident-prone. The orchestra and chorus seemed to find it hard to listen to each other; the soloists persistently sang out of tune; the conductor dropped his baton, and worst of all Paolo Kudriavchenko, singing the tenor lead, had developed a throat infection and was progressively unable to sing the notes.

As a consequence the end product was a mere sketch of the piece, which came over as noisy and routine. Perhaps the noise may be blamed on the conductor's unwillingness to subdue the orchestral brass, but the rest can be attributed to misfortune. It was a pity that Kudriavchenko was handicapped, for his is a heroic, expressive voice, and even in this unhappy state he was able to put thrill and pathos into Andrey's Oath to the Czar.

We have now got used to the special character of Russian singing, of which the amazing Galina Gorchakova is an excellent example. Still in her twenties, she has an enormous mettlesome dramatic soprano, round and sonorous, but her passionate delivery tends to paraphrase the notes and to make everything sound heavy and earnest, without lyricism or delicacy. Still, in the kind of eager, persuasive melody that Tchaikovsky loved - Natalia's lament at the wedding, for example - Gorchakova was magnificent, quite overwhelming and heart- gripping.

Ludmila Nam, who sang the part of Andrey's mother, Morozova, was even heavier, her opening lament grim and ferocious. It was good to hear Anne Collins again, singing the trouser role of Basmanov with much temperament and colour. The baritones, Piotr Nowacki and Vladimir Glushchak, were portentous and beefy, true operatic baddies. Despite the problems, then, there was quite enough merit in this perfomance to form an assessment of the piece, both for good and for ill.