Superb Russian Opera!!!
AlexN963 | New York City | 09/17/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, the first of the two operas by the composer, and considered to be the very first truly Russian opera, has obviously played a very significant role in the world of Russian music since its 1836 premier. Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I, the opera was composed by Glinka under his full supervision, and it fit the Russian political agenda of the time perfectly; which largely contributed to its initial success. During the Russian Revolution, the opera was banned for many years because of its pro-tsar message, until it was unearthed by Stalin, who commissioned a new "soviet-friendly" libretto. Even though the "Ivan Susanin" (the new title given) was one of the most popular operas in Russia, the new libretto had plenty of logistical problems, and was simply not as fluent. Plus, much music had to be cut from the score in the Soviet version, such as the majestic coronation scene at the end.
So, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi was quick to restore the original score and original libretto by Baron Rozen. To get an idea of just how fast, the USSR fell in 1991, and this performance is from 1992. Up until now, there was no single all around excellent recording of this opera, especially in the West. This new DVD by Kultur is everything that I wanted and more; a truly superb performance from everyone.
The role of Ivan Susanin is considered to be the quintessential Russian bass role (even more so than Boris Godunov). The role requires volume, a commanding presence, but it also requires an excellent actor who can be fatherly and sympathetic. Evgeny Nesterenko meets all those requirements, and proves to be one of the best Susanin's ever, right up there with Mikhailov and Reizen. True, Nesterenko maybe a little past his former stentorian prime, but at this point in his career, his voice was just the right color for Susanin. Nesterenko is also a tremendous actor who knows this role inside-out; you can actually sense the pain in eyes during his big aria and recitative, when Susanin sees that his death is inevitable; absolutely convincing. This portrayal is a tremendous accomplishment; one for the ages.
The other big star here is the tenor Alexander Lomonosov. Sobinin is one of those unsingable grand opera tenor roles, much like Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, where the singer needs to sound very dramatic but also be able to hit a high C every few minutes. Lomonosov makes it seem like there is nothing to it.
Elena Zaremba, a real contralto, is excellent as Vanya, Susanin's adopted son, managing to get across much boyish charm. She also comes up big in her Act 3 aria. Marina Mescheriakova starts off a bit shrill, but manages to finish off successfully. She too, is convincing in her role. All of the charming ensembles come off very well coordinated.
This also happens to be the most chorus heavy opera I have ever heard. The chorus has more music than any of the soloists, and the music requires a real virtuoso choir to pull it off. The Bolshoi chorus is tremendous with unbelievable pitch precision the whole way through. The Bolshoi orchestra under Alexander Lazarev know what they are doing. The orchestra sound is very "authentic" and they leave plenty of excitement to spare.
The production is done in the "risk-free" old Bolshoi style; very traditional. The direction can static at times, but you can be sure that there aren't going to be any unpleasant surprises. This is good, because most people have never seen a production of "A Life for the Tsar" before, it is best to introduce it the traditional way. A long ballet sequence is given in the Polish court; pleasant dance music, but it overstays its welcome. A minor quirk is that they cut out a very beautiful, but long ensemble number in the first act that I remember as being a high point in other recordings. However, I'm no musicology expert, but I am pretty sure that there is some music in here that I've never heard before. Nevertheless, they could have cut a section of the ballet to make room for that number. Furthermore, if you are easily annoyed by audience noise, it's your lucky day, because there isn't any whatsoever. This also means that all of the applause is cut out, and there are no curtain calls. Not to make a big deal about it, but I would have liked to see hear some of the audience reactions to this wonderful performance; just feels like something is missing.
Yes, this opera showcases much of Glinka's bel canto influence, but it doesn't overwhelm it like he does in his second opera: Ruslan and Lyudmila. And, if you are familiar with Ruslan, you might agree that there a few parts of that which are rather sleep inducing. None of that here, every moment brings you something fresh and exciting. Even the ridiculously long ballet gets old, but never gets dull or looses energy. Now with this being released, and the Kirov's wonderful Ruslan and Lyudmila out there, all of the Glinka's operatic output is available on DVD. I highly recommend this DVD to everyone interested in Russian opera, or any opera in general.
Strong but very straightforwarad production
C. Harbison | Montague, MA United States | 10/04/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is an interesting early Russian opera with strong Italian influence (complete with many cabalettas). The singing is uniformly good, if not excellent--but it is also mostly of the stand and deliver type--very little interaction of characters or dramatic staging. Sets are effectively painted in a typical Russian manner. The opera is performed to an empty hall (seen occasionally behind the conductor) so not only is there no applause but there is also a certain lack of tension or excitement in the performance. Still, this is an important addition to the DVD catalog of Russian operas."
The performance was excellent; the opera was not
A. BOSS | Mountainside, NJ United States | 09/28/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As one has come to expect from the Bolshoi, this opera was very well performed in a conventional version. Singing was very good as was the orchestra. Costumes and scenery were good, although the staging in places might be considered a bit static. The problem I had with it was that the musical content of the opera did not really justify it's three and a half hour length. There were a number of places where scenes (the ballet at the Polish ball, for example) were so drawn out that I found myself wishing they would end sooner."