Guns, girls and God in a tale for our times

The Royal Opera's first staging of The Tsar's Bride invites chilling comparisons with today's Russia, says Jessica Duchen

Intrigue and intimidation, power and poison – such is the stuff of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, The Tsar's Bride, which is opening this month at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for the first time. The innocent Marfa is chosen from a selection of girls to become the bride of Ivan the Terrible, but falls victim to a network of jealousy and vested interests and is ultimately murdered. This might look typically operatic if its context didn't also make it seem so real: in this tale of corruption, venality and violence among the hangers-on of the Russian court, you can almost smell the polonium sushi.

Its director, Paul Curran, has set the opera squarely in the present day. He knows a thing or two about contemporary Russia: "I've worked there a lot and I speak Russian," he confirms. It is a 100 per cent historical, he adds – though the real Marfa took two weeks to die a slow, agonising death.

Modern Russia, Curran adds, holds chilling parallels with the opera's 16th-century world: "Today you see skinheads around the streets tattooed with images of dogs," he says. "The dog was the symbol of the oprichniki – the Tsar's secret police: a creature that could sniff things out, attack and destroy. The opera feels like a comment on a modern, chauvinist, racist, nasty aspect of society. I'm sure that's what Rimsky-Korsakov was writing about, even in his own time."

The Tsar's Bride dates from 1898 and in Russia it has long been staple operatic repertoire – yet this is its first staging by the Royal Opera. Perhaps that's partly because Rimsky-Korsakov has always been best known here for his exotic-sounding evocation of the Arabian Nights in Scheherazade. We tend to see him as a composer of magical fairy-tales rather than gritty political dramas, let alone something that, according to Curran, resembles "an episode of The Sopranos".

Fairy tales were only one side of the composer's work. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was in the Russian navy, was knowledgeable about politics and critical of his country's governance. Many of his 15 operas are based on historical topics, often chosen for their pertinence.

The Tsar's Bride escaped censure, but his final opera, The Golden Cockerel, though ostensibly historical, bore such parallels to the then ongoing situation between Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra and Rasputin that it was banned.

According to Sir Mark Elder, who will conduct it, "The music is like Verdi with vodka. I think it's Rimsky-Korsakov's best opera," he adds. "It's brilliantly written for the voice – a true Russian form of bel canto. It needs really great singers; as for the conducting, I'm trying to get bite and thrust and pacing to it, so when the lyrical moments arrive and the private lives of these characters go so sour and so mad, one is very touched."

The score, he says, is extremely beautiful – contrasting with, and therefore highlighting, the brutality of the action. Parts of it, he says, echo the rugged Slavic power of Mussorgsky. Others seem haunted by Tchaikovsky, "especially his gift for evoking atmosphere with a few perfectly-chosen notes".

The cast includes a number of Russian singers, two of whom – Ekaterina Gubanova and Marina Poplavskaya – were both members of the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and are now making triumphant return visits as leading ladies. "I was nervous about presenting our Russian singers with such a contemporary interpretation," Curran admits, "but all of them have been hugely enthusiastic about it.

"As we're setting it in a modern context," he says, "people will recognise the contrast between these guys carrying guns, having a sleazy time with expensive champagne and strippers in a bar, then saying 'Oh, it's time for us to go to Mass'. Everything is done in the name of Tsar, in the name of the Russian people, but most of all in the name of religion. And that's where the parallel across the centuries is almost too strong."



'The Tsar's Bride', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) in rep 14 April to 2 May

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice