The Tsar's Bride


Rimsky-Korsakov The Tsar's Bride opera to a libretto by the composer and Ilya Tyumenev. Directed 2013 by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Schiller Theater, Berlin. Stars Anatoli Kotscherga (Vasily Sobakin), Olga Peretyatko (Marfa Sobakina), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Grigory Gryaznoy), Tobias Schabel (Grigory Malyuta-Skuratov), Pavel Černoch (Ivan Lykov), Anita Rachvelishvili (Lyubasha), Stephan Rügamer (Dr. Bomelius), Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Domna Saburova), Anna Lapkovskaya (Dunyasha), Carola Höhn (Petrovna), Dmitri Plotnikov (Young Lad), Ana Charim (Serving Girl), and Peter Krumow (Stoker). Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin and Staatsopernchor (Chorus Master Rustam Samedov). Set design by Dmitri Tcherniakov; costume design by Elena Zaytseva; lighting design by Gleb Filshtinsky; dramaturgy by Detlef Giese; video design and production by Raketa Media. Directed for TV by Andy Sommer; produced by François Duplat. Sung in Russian; subtitles in English, French, and German. Released 2015, the music was recorded with 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling and the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: A+

The Tsar's Bride was inspired by true events in the life of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Ivan's third wife was Marfa Sobakina, the daughter of a merchant (a commoner), whom Ivan selected from among 12 marriage finalists. Marfa died from a mysterious illness a few days after the wedding, and many subjects died thereafter as Ivan attempted to determine if Marfa had been poisoned. The opera is performed regularly in Russia, but rarely in the West. It's not mentioned in my TheGrove Book of Operas.

Dimitri Tcherniakov is a Russian theater director famous for adapting older operas in controversial ways. One of his techniques is to keep the music and libretto of a work intact (perhaps with some cutting, etc.) while using staging and personal directing to radically change the story told by the opera. For an example of this,  see my review of Tcherniakov's Dialogues des carmélites, which I called sacrilegious and graded "D." Changing Dialogues des carmélites was tricky because it's still under copyright (from 1957). But modifying The Tsar's Bride was safer---Ivan died over 400 years ago.

Whatever one might think about his staging, I think all admire Tcherniakov for his skill at directing the acting of his singers. Although it's hard to show this with simple static screenshots, the stage movements and acting in this production are at the level of excellent theater dramas or motion picture films.

The show opens with the placid scene below of a city square in old Russia. But this is not a stage shot. I think it's a video projection provided by Raketa Media, a Russian company that appears to have the ability to create stage videos with a brightness and degree of detail better than anything else I have noted in HDVD recordings:

As the video screen is raised, we see that the time of the opera is not 1550, but right now. The old Russians we saw are actors in front of a green screen in a modern movie and TV studio. On the left we see the control room and a display of the finished product after the background is digitally provided to replace the green part of the picture. I think it astonishing to see such a technical tour-de-force in the first seconds of a show---this is probably something that Raketa Media shoots for:

A cool closer view of the media control room:

Now we see that the media center is also a meeting place and chat room for the "opritschniks." This tongue-freezing Russian term was the name for members of a quasi-religious organization created by Ivan the Terrible to be the first Russian secret police. When they were not in church, they went about the country beheading, impaling, and boiling alive the enemies of  the Tsar. During the Communist era, their descendants were called "Apparatchicks" or members of the "Nomeklatura." I would suggest today the names "Supergeeks" and "Oligopoliks". However named, they would be the scientists, intellectuals, and businessmen who run Russia and form its present aristocracy. I'll just call them the "Supers", which is easier to pronounce than "opritschnik." By the way, the words on the screen below are in German because this production was filmed in the Schiller Theater in Berlin. The Schiller Theater (usually used for plays) was the temporary home of the State Opera while the big opera house was under reconstruction:

Our Supers are not to be confused with the current Putin regime in Russia. Tcherniakov is not making a political statement here, but a sociological one. In fact, there does not appear to be in our story any supreme leader in Russia. (I'll assume Putin died when he was thrown from a horse playing polo. Or maybe he resigned all his offices and entered a monastery.) The Supers in charge of the economy, the computer networks, and the media outlets have determined that it would be a good idea (while kept "Top Secret" of course) to create a "virtual Tsar" to rule Russia. This we learn by reading email screens circulated among the Inner Circle of Supers. The email messages are written in slang-laced German. Here's my translation into English for  the key screen seen below: "You're alone, right? Here's the idea: THE PEOPLE NEED A TSAR! A true leader. Without him, nothing works. In red: But where do we get this Tsar? Answer: We'll make it all up: a virtual Tsar for all Russia. We've got the chops to do it!

Next we see the creation of the new Tsar by adding the together in the computer the faces of Joseph Stalin, Boris Yeltsin, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Vladimir Mayakovsy, Leon Trotsky, and Alexander the III (I don't know why they left out Dostoyevski, Gorbachov, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and my favorite Russian, Lunacharsky.) The resulting image looks forceful but trustworthy and benign. (This can actually be done. I have no idea if the folks at Raketa Media went to all the trouble to really do this, but you get the idea.) And after the Tsar is invented, there will be a reality-show contest to let all the girls in Russian compete to become the Tsarina! (Well, the show will cut down the millions of applicants to a group of 12 of the prettiest---and after that the Tsar will pick his favorite.)

So now you have an introduction to Tcherniakov's updated abstract Russia and setting for The Tsar's Bride. Now we can return to the story as told by Rimsky-Korsakov and Ilya Tyumenev. One of the leaders of the Supers is Grigory Gryaznoy (Johannes Martin Kränzle), shown here pontificating to other Supers:

Gryaznoy throws a drunken party for his colleagues, long a feature of the leadership culture in Russia. In the center is a half-bald man leaning back in his chair. This is Malyuta (Tobias Schabel), probably the most powerful man in Russia. We also meet Ivan Lykov (Pavel Cernoch), seen standing on the right and addressing the group. Lykov was sent abroad by the government on a fact-finding mission. He praises the Germans for their industry and hopes that from them. . . :

Gryaznoy is a kind of mentor to Lykov. The only problem is that in Lykov's absence, Gryaznoy fell madly in love with Marfa Sobakin, asked for her hand in marriage, and was rejected. The reason for the rejection was that Marfa had been promised to Lykov! And, alas, Gryaznoy is now too old to appeal to teenage girls!


Desperate, Gryaznoy asks Dr. Bomelius (Stephan Rügamer) for a love potion. Bomelius, also called "the German", doesn't welcome this dangerous request. But Gryaznoy is a powerful man offering a lot of money. So Bomelius agrees to sell Gryaznoy a potion. (Oh, dear, love potions are such a relic. I wish Tcherniakov had used some other term ---say "selective toggle aphrodisiac"--- instead of "potion," but Tcherniakov doesn't mess with his librettos.)

Now here's a sweetheart:  Lyubasha (Anita Rachvelishvili), Gryaznoy's mistress. Lyubasha knows that Gryaznoy wants to dump her. She spied on Gryaznoy and heard his conversation with Bomelius about the love potion. Lyubasha is not a teenager, and she has Marfa's name:

Below we see Marfa (Olga Peretyako). Would you rather have Lyubasha or Marfa?

Next we see Lykov again with Marfa's father, the widower merchant Vasily Sobakin (Anatoli Kotscherga). Look at the beautiful fine detail in the image below and the image of Marfa above. One can hardly believe how wonderful all this looks in the HT as presented by Tcherniakov, the videographer Andy Sommer, and the lighting designer Gleb Filshtinsky (you need great lighting to get great pictures):

Below, Marfa is in her father's house with her friend Dunyasha (Anna Lapkovskaya). In the Sobakin home, just as in the rest of the world, the ubiquitous big-screen TV is usually turned on. Here the new Tzar is being introduced to the Russian people; and if you're a teenage girl, you know the Tsar is looking for a wife! Orwell in 1984 got it wrong. Big Brother is not a threatening watchdog or guard. He's an entertainer. And you have no idea he's using cookies in your computers and little microphones in your electronics to keep tabs on you:

Does this pose look familiar? Well, it's the computer image we saw above. Did they really invent a face, or is this a picture of an unidentified actor?


Lykov is back home now, and it's time to marry Marfa. He brings her flowers and everyone is ecstatic. Here we also get a better picture of the friend Dunyasha:

Meanwhile, Lyubasha peeps and learns the devastating truth: Lyubasha can't compete with Marfa, but only can hope to destroy her:

Lyubasha knows who sells potions. She asks Bomelius for a something that will slowly destroy a victim's mind and body---a hate potion. Bomelius is trapped, but he will try to trap Lyubasha also. He sells her the hate potion, not for money, but for sex:


Lykov wants to set a wedding date. But now he gets some shocking news. The new Tsar is looking for a wife. And both Marfa and Dunyasha are on the short list of 12 eligible girls:

The whole nation is agog with the new reality TV show: The Bachelor Tsar! Below we see the widow Domna Saburova, Dunyasha's mother (Anna Tomowa-Sintow ). She reports on the Tsar's last inspection of the 12 virgin finalists, including both Marfa and Dunyasha. The Tsar ignored Marfa and spent all his time flirting with Dunyasha. The smart money is all on Dunyasha!

This clears the way for Lykov to marry Marfa, and the engagement party heats up. Now Gryaznoy, who is to be Lykov's Best Man, uses his potion. But is this the love potion or the hate potion?

Per ancient custom, bottoms up:


In a magnificent sextet plus choir laden with enormous irony, Lykov, Marfa, and Best Man Gryaznoy celebrate the engagement. Soon all of them will be dead:

The party is pooped when Malyuta brings the news that the Tsar has chosen Marfa as his bride. But wait a moment! How is the real, live Marfa going to marry a virtual, electronic Tsar? There is a solution to this, but you will have to buy the disc to learn how this comes about:


Gryaznoy is puzzled what the love potion hasn't started working. He tries to frame Lykov:

Soon the knitted sleeve of care unravels, and Marfa suffers a gruesome death. But this is no problem for the Supers. Quite to the contrary, Marfa's end is a great convenience to them. They already have plenty of images of Marfa to keep the story of the virtual Tsar and the virtual Tsarina going for a long time:


Most of the video was shot live at the Schiller theater. The audience seemed stunned trying to take in both this obscure story from Russian history and Tcherniakov's radical revisions. This production is a master-stroke of genius, but you have to bone up a bit on the historical Marfa Sobakina and see this several times to grasp it all. And another thing is certain: if Tcherniakov slandered anyone in his re-telling of this tale from 1570, the statute of limitations has already run.

Everything about this show is stellar. The Rimsky-Korsakov music is bracing and fresh to us non-Russians. The Berlin Staatskapelle and Staatsopernchor perform well as led by Barenboim, who proves again why he is the greatest working musician today on earth (and maybe the greatest working musician ever). The recording and SQ is good enough even if the recording specs are a bit anemic. Tcherniakov's concepts are intriguing, and he gets to make a critical statement about current media mores. His mise-on-scène and the costumes by Elena Zaytseva are convincing. Over and over again we see clever touches of great personal directing, and all the members of Tcherniakov's team of singing actors perform like this is the last thing they will ever do. Remarkably, Tcherniakov makes  all this happen in a building that's not really an opera house. Finally, I'm happy to see how closely Tcherniakov worked with Andy Sommer to produce a spectacular video record. What else could I say: this is an A+, mind-stretching update of a fine opera that has been all but ignored outside Russia until now.

Here a BelAir clip:


Update on 2015-12-26 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Joshua Rosenblum calls this "an unconventional but stellar introduction to a remarkable rarity" in the January 2016 Opera News at pages 50-51. He especially praises all the singers in their solo roles and for "gorgeous ensemble pieces."