A Life for the Tsar, Glinka 


Marina Mescheriakova (Antonida), Elena Zaremba (Vanja), Alexander Laminose (Sobinin), Evgeny Nesterenko (Ivan Susanin), Boris Bezhko (Polish Commander)

Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra and Chorus c. Alexander Lazarev, p. Nicolai Kuznetsov, d. Valery Levental, video director Derek Bailey 

NVC Arts 4509-92051-2 (173 minutes) 


The Maid of Orleans, Tchaikovsky 


Nina Rautio (Joan of Arc), Maria Gavrilova (Agnes Sorel), Oleg Kulko (King Charles VII),  Mikhail Krutikov (Dunois), Vladimir Redkin (Lionel), Arkady Mishenkin (Raymond), Gleb Nikolsky (The Archbishop), Vyacheslav Pochapsky (Thiqbaut), Maksim Mikhailov (Bertrand)

Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra and Chorus c. Alexander Lazarev, p. Boris Pokrovsky, d. Valery Levental, video director Brian Large 

NVC Arts 4509-94191-2 (149 minutes) 


From the Bolshoi in the early 1990’s come performances of two rarely staged Russian operas. Though these two productions share the same designer and conductor, they are theatrically poles apart. The Glinka is the sort of massive spectacle associated with the Soviet style Bolshoi of the mid-twentieth century or earlier. The Tchaikovsky, thanks to the much more theatrically articulate work of its director, Boris Pokrovsky, is, if anything, more spectacular, but contrives to be subversive, illuminating, gimmicky, moving and risible--matching the score in unevenness. 


Glinka’s score is of undoubted historical importance, being the first through-composed Russian opera of real professional standing. The final chorus, Slavsya, became a second national anthem and it is a seminal work for the Russian historical operatic tradition. The musical language, a highly individual mixture of Weber, Rossini and Russian folk inflexions, with an individually transparent orchestral palette, is attractive and vital. The musical approach is solid, but short on subtlety--the plush late nineteenth century performing style is too massive for the Russo-Italian bel-canto idiom, which would surely benefit from a more period approach. This version reinstates the Tsarist libretto, bowdlerized during the Soviet regime, and is a full text, even including an often cut Trio in the Epilogue, which is one of the opera's most plangent numbers. 


Nesterenko’s is a great bass voice and he sings with passion and consistency. Dramatically, though, he is somewhat bland; and this rôle needs more histrionic involvement to bring it to life. His daughter, Antonida, is sung with spirit and style by Marina Mescheriakova, though her extreme top register can turn acidic when negotiating Glinka’s not quite idiomatically written coloratura. Sobinin, her fiancé , a Rossini tenor role, is trumpeted thrillingly by Alexander Lomonosov, but his Act 3 scena, bristling with top C’s and D flats from the chest, becomes wearing. The most engaging performance, both dramatically and vocally, is Elena Zaremba in the trouser rôle of Vanja, Susanin’s adolescent son. The performance takes a lift when she is on, her lanky stage presence, vital eyes and truly sumptuous contralto compelling and she makes much of very little dramatically, including some rather touching domestic horseplay with dad. The chorus blocking is stolid; and minimal interaction with the principals is a crippling flaw when so many scenes involve the chorus as protagonist. The extended ballet scene, virtually the entire second act, is boringly choreographed and seems interminable. Filming is static; and certain devices, such as a montage of stills when Susanin, close to death, reminisces about his family, seem like a last resort to liven things up. It doesn’t. As this is a historically important opera which does not have a modern CD recording in the catalogue, this DVD has its uses; but watching it only serves to confirm why, despite the freshness and catchiness of much of the music, it is a stranger to Western stages. 


Tchaikovsky’s take on Joan of Arc is an essay in Meyerbeerian French Grand Opera style, designed for export and hopeful success. Some of the music is glorious, in particular the second half of Act One and Joan’s narration in Act Two. Much of the rest, though, is empty bombast. Joan rather bafflingly gets a boyfriend, Lionel, who is the cause of her downfall; yet their music, in which one senses Tchaikovsky's effort to exorcize Carmen's impact on him, is very impassioned. The score is slightly cut and the attractive ballet music is omitted. 


The picture book sets by Valeri Leventhal are magnificent and almost cinematically fluid, with scrims taken from illuminated manuscripts, masking what is only a single utilitarian set; yet, this is done with great imagination. Such is the detail and scale, though, that only the largest of screens will suffice to take it all in. The video direction does its best, but, on occasion, we lose our bearings. The direction livens up what could be a very static experience--in fact, the work’s close proximity to oratorio is cheekily underlined by the chorus appearing in concert dress, Joan rather mystifyingly reading from the score at the start of the last act and a wandering flute player who seems to have lost the pit. Extras portray Joan’s angels as enigmatic familiars, which chimes well with the somewhat confused motivation of the libretto. 


Joan is a high mezzo part, with the soprano, Nina Rautio, taking the soprano options in the score and delivering a high octane, often thrilling performance, with admirable consistency between the registers and a glorious top. This was a singer with a big career in the late ‘90’s; where is she now? Her page boy hair cut and dumpy demeanour serve her well dramatically - she is demonstrably a misfit, indeed. The remaining cast is uniformly strong, particularly Vyacheslav Pochapsky as Joan’s father, Thibaut, whose rangy wolfhound presence and firm baritone make a meal of his denunciation of his daughter, all flailing arms and rolling eyeballs. A flawed piece in a flawed but entertaining production, it is good to have a work as rare as this accessible on DVD. 


© Julian Grant 2006