In 1939, the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made a splash in Hollywood with the American release of his sweeping, historical epic Alexander Nevsky. Then he followed it up in the 40's with the even more sprawling, three-part drama, Ivan the Terrible.
To many American movie buffs, these films surely seemed new and exotic, with their colorful, Russian settings and dark, psychological undertones. Opera fans, on the other hand, may have recognized the movies as part of a theatrical trend dating back to the previous century.
In the mid-1800's, a group of young composers got together in St. Petersburg. Now known as "The Mighty Handful," their goal was to establish a distinctly Russian school of composing, and Russian history was one of their most important tools.
When it comes to opera, the most famous product of their efforts is Modeste Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Other members of the group also pitched in -- notably Alexander Borodin, with Prince Igor. And there was another, less familiar contribution from a composer not known for somber, historical dramas: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Though Rimsky-Korsakov is familiar to many music lovers for his brilliantly orchestrated concert music -- including the popular symphonic poem Scheherezade -- he also wrote a dozen or so operas. Many of them are showy concoctions based on fantastic stories from Russian folklore and legend. But his 1899 opera The Tsar's Bride is something else altogether. It's a complex, psychological drama, steeped in history and driven by one of the same characters that later inspired Eisenstein, the 16th-century tsar, Ivan IV. It's also a fascinating attempt, by a distinctly Russian composer, to compose an opera leaning heavily on a lyrical, almost Italian style of vocal writing.
The story of The Tsar's Bride speculates about a single, mysterious event during Ivan's long reign -- the tsar's brief marriage to Marfa Sobakin, his third wife, who died in 1571, just days after their wedding. In the opera, Ivan himself never utters a word. During his single appearance on stage his identity is revealed though a traditional Russian melody heard in the orchestra. Yet the tsar is a looming presence throughout the drama, represented in the oppressive actions of his dreaded secret police, the oprichniks, who include some of the opera's most compelling characters.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Tsar's Bride from the theatre often regarded as the cradle of opera, La Scala, in Milan. The stars include soprano Olga Peretyatko as Marfa, baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle as the ruthless oprichnik Gryaznoy and mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Marfa's tragic rival, Lyubasha. The production is led by conductor Daniel Barenboim.