Glinka's 'A Life for the Tsar' in London,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
Glinka's A Life for the Tsar is one of those historically important operas that rarely get performed nowadays. It was last staged in the UK in the 1970s in Reading. So Saturday's concert performance (27 November 2004) at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, by Chelsea Opera Group was a chance for us all to re-acquaint ourselves with the first important Russian opera.
Mentioned frequently in history books, the opera was highly popular in Russia in the nineteenth century and had a significant influence on composers such as Mussorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov and Borodin. It was Glinka's intention to meld Italian and French operatic techniques with Russian folksong to create a distinctively Russian opera, as opposed to the very western operas composed by Russians.
He used a libretto based on a real incident, creating an historical patchwork which was a precursor of the later Russian history operas. Set during the times of troubles, Russia has been invaded by the Poles and they have imposed a Tsar on the country.
In a striking aria, Antonida (Linda Richardson) laments the state of her country but looks forward to the return of her sweetheart from the wars. Chelsea Opera Group were performing the opera in English and though Richardson displayed a beautiful lyric voice, she rather swallowed her words.
Her father, Ivan Susanin (Ukrainian bass, Vassily Savenko) will not let Antonida marry until the troubles in Russia have been settled. Savenko has a fine presence, but in these opening acts he seemed somewhat inhibited, perhaps because of having to sing the role in English rather then his native Russian.
Antonida's sweetheart, Bogdan Sobinin (tenor John Upperton) returns from the wars and informs everyone that the Poles are retreating and a Russian Tsar has been chosen; it is the local land-owner. Cue general rejoicing.
Glinka uses Russian folk music extensively and the chorus and orchestra play a very important role. The dialogue (recitative not spoken) often takes place over mellifluous tunes in the orchestra. The result is rather like a Russian dialect Volksoper, very attractive but not necessarily memorable.
In a short scene the Poles, characterised by mazurkas and polonaises, lament the downturn in their fortunes and decide to go in search of the new Russian Tsar and capture him.
Copyright © 29 November 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK