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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi Revives Forgotten Tchaikovsky Opera

Almost simultaneously with the much-heralded premiere in Samara last month of Sergei Slonimsky's new opera "The Visions of Ivan the Terrible," Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's "The Oprichnik" - yet another work set in Ivan the Terrible's reign - has been plucked from obscurity by the Bolshoi Theater.

The third of Tchaikovsky's 11 operas, and the first to enjoy some measure of success, "The Oprichnik" was last seen on the Bolshoi's stage in 1904 and has rarely appeared elsewhere since.

Two weeks after its premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in 1874, Tchaikovsky himself, echoing many contemporary critics, denounced "The Oprichnik."

"[It] torments me," he wrote to his brother. "The piece is so bad that I fled from the rehearsals to avoid hearing a single note. At the performance itself, I wished the earth would swallow me up ... what disappointment! There is no style, no action."

Why, one might reasonably ask, has the Bolshoi, with its meager financial resources and the gaping holes in its repertoire of standard operas, chosen what seems a mere footnote to Tchaikovsky's musical biography as its only major new operatic production of the current season?

The answer is that "The Oprichnik," though dramatically somewhat crude, is a substantial musical treat, filled from beginning to end with gorgeous tunes, including some especially brilliant choral writing based on authentic Russian folk melodies.

Tchaikovsky himself wrote the libretto for "The Oprichnik." The story revolves around a young boyar named Andrei, who is persuaded to join Tsar Ivan's equivalent of Hitler's SS, the oprichniki, in an attempt to steal his beloved Natalya away from the clutches of her father, who has struck a deal to marry the girl off to another, much older boyar. Just as his success seems assured, however, Andrei breaks an oprichnik vow and, in the fashion of the time, is sent off for immediate beheading.

On the evidence of a performance last weekend, the Bolshoi comes close to doing "The Oprichnik" full musical justice.

Unfortunately, the staging and decor are of a sort which might have pleased a conservative Soviet audience of 40 or 50 years ago, but seem hopelessly out of place in the current Russian operatic world.

To some extent, one must forgive the posturing and unmotivated movements that make up so much of the action in the new Bolshoi production. The intended director, Irina Molostova became ill early in the rehearsal period and, in fact, died on the eve of the premiere. Most of the work, therefore, unexpectedly fell to her assistant, Nikolai Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov was certainly not helped by Yury Ustinov's decor, which features a peculiar, intrusive framework of wooden beams downstage and an array of tawdry drops in the background. Irina Akimova's costumes, on the other hand, are quite splendid and absolutely in keeping with the period. Particularly effective are the black-uniformed oprichniks, each wearing a menacing dog pelt and carrying a broom, the latter to sweep away the corrupt Russia that Tsar Ivan believed himself to have inherited.

The veteran Mark Ermler, the Bolshoi's musical director since September, led the opera with surprising energy and drew remarkably fine playing from his orchestra. The chorus, too, was mostly superb.

Excellent singing was heard from the lower voices among the cast of principals, especially the two mezzo-sopranos - Olga Teryushnova, as Andrei's mother, and Marina Shutova, in the "trouser" role of Andrei's friend Basmanov. Unfortunately, neither Olga Kurzhumova as Natalya nor Nikolai Vasilyev as Andrei came close to meeting the opera's vocal and dramatic demands. Soprano Kurzhumov looked lovely but sang throughout with an excruciating vibrato. Vasilyev, a typical Bolshoi tenor, was awkward in both voice and stage manner.

In spite of reservations about the physical production and about some of the singing heard from one of several casts - reliable sources report that Maria Gavrilova, in particular, did a fine job with Natalya at an earlier performance - "The Oprichnik" as a whole provides one of the Bolshoi's more enjoyable evenings of opera. The action on stage is rarely dull and the vocal defects by no means obscure the magic of Tchaikovsky's score.

"The Oprichnik" plays at 7 p.m. on March 20 at the Bolshoi Theater, 1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad., tel. 292-9986. Nearest metro: Teatralnaya. Tickets can also be purchased at the EPS Theater Box Office in the Hotel Metropol, tel. 927-6982/83.