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Ivan Susanin's adopted son Vanya (Anna Burford, mezzo-soprano, in stunning form) sings a Russian folksong and, encouraged by his father, looks forward to being old enough to fight for the Tsar. Everyone looks forward to the wedding.

At this point, after ninety minutes of music, the genial Volksoper starts to disintegrate. The Poles erupt into the wedding celebrations and drag Susanin off to lead them to the new Tsar. Susanin goes willingly but decides to lead them astray, away from the Tsar. This scene lacked the dramatic impact that it should have had. Savenko seemed to be ill at ease and the chorus, though working hard, did not generate the sort of crisp impact that I would have liked.

The atmosphere changes totally in the final act, where Susanin is camped with the Poles. After a long moving prayer, Susanin bids goodbye to his family and accepts his impending death as he leads the Poles out of their way, thus giving the new Tsar time to escape. In this scene Savenko really found his form and gave a nobly moving account of Glinka's music, which leaves Volksoper far behind and gives us a glimpse of many more future tragic figures.

In an epilogue, set during the new Tsar's consecration, Glinka juxtaposes a choral rejoicing with the laments of Susanin's surviving family. A remarkable for solo for Vanya, beautifully sung by Anna Burford, leads into a memorable trio for Vanya, Antonida and Sobinin accompanied by just cellos and male voice chorus -- a remarkable coup indeed. The opera concludes in a chorus of rejoicing for the Tsar.

The opera includes many folk elements, extraneous to the basic plot but contributing to the distinctive Russian atmosphere. This means that the solo roles are rather under written. Linda Richardson sang her two arias beautifully, but was given few opportunities to develop Antonida's character. The same is true of Vanya, but Anna Burford's lovely burnished contralto voice added grace and depth to Vanya's solos. But the sterling contribution was from John Upperton as Antonida's sweetheart Sobinin. His bright tenor was untiring in the taxing role, full of Italianate cavatinas. Upperton made light of the role's high tessitura.

In the final act Savenko cut a distinguished figure as Susanin, so one forgave him the less than involving previous acts. His English was understandably occluded and only John Upperton amongst the soloists had outstanding diction.

Chelsea Opera Group are to be commended for doing the work in English, having tracked down a translation and producing the necessary printed material. But, given such a fine Russian singer in the title role, I would have far preferred to hear it in Russian with a printed translation. Especially as the sung English was rather stilted.

A Life for the Tsar is a substantial opera, around three hours of music; so it was perhaps inevitable that there were hints of tiredness in the chorus and occasional slips in the orchestra. But under Alexander Walker's dynamic leadership both chorus and orchestra gave a tremendous performance of this neglected opera. Next time we see Boris Godunov we can be thankful to Chelsea Opera Group for helping us understand something of the musical history behind the opera.

Copyright © 29 November 2004 Robert Hugill, London UK



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