A Life for the Tsar

A Life for the Tsar [Concert performance; sung in English]

Ivan Susanin – Vassily Savenko
Antonida – Linda Richardson
Sobinin – John Upperton
Vanya – Anna Burford
A polish Captain / A Russian Captain – Richard Wiegold
A Peasant / A Polish Messenger – Simon Bainbridge

Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra
Alexander Walker

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 27 November, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

English was the language in which Chelsea Opera Group performed Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar”, but a Russian bass-baritone was employed to sing the part of Ivan Susanin, the peasant who led the attacking Polish forces away from the new Tsar’s hiding-place to their death and perished with them.

The opera contains much fine music, including a quartet whose final section has a catchy rhythm, a lovely cavatina for Antonida, a fiendishly difficult aria for tenor and Susanin’s final aria as he prepares to leave his children and die for the Tsar.

Alexander Walker, who has conducted much in the former Soviet Union, led the COG chorus and orchestra successfully through their by no means simple assignments, catching the various rhythms and tempos. The COG forces were in fine form: their enthusiasm is infectious. The men of the chorus particularly sounded as though they were enjoying themselves, and the orchestra, as usual, reached a good standard.

As Susanin’s children, Antonida and Vanya, COG booked Linda Richardson and Anna Burford respectively. The former’s pure tone was just right for Antonida, smoothly and sweetly embracing the lines of the Act One ‘Cavatina’, twinkling in the quartet yet conveying the sadness of later scenes. Apparently, she had a cold. Was I the only one who did not notice? Rarely, if ever, can Burford have had so many low notes to sing in one role: as Vanya, a trousers-role, she had to venture into vocal vaults on many occasions, to rise triumphantly. I think it is the best I have ever heard from her.

John Upperton, who had sung so well in COG’s “Ermione”, was faced with another difficult task, for the role of Sobinin covers a wide compass. The Act Four aria, recorded by such as Helge Rosvaenge and Nicolai Gedda, has a fearsome upper extension, which may explain why it is omitted from three Russian LP sets that I have. Upperton certainly met it head-on: all the high notes were there and not strained for. Occasionally his voice, lacking refulgence but with extreme clarity, reminded me of that of Kenneth Macdonald (Covent Garden in the 1960s and 1970s). Switching between the two small roles of a Polish captain and a Russian one was Richard Wiegold, possessor of a very resonant, dark bass.

After the Russian Revolution, the opera’s title was changed to “Ivan Susanin” and references to the Tsar were removed. COG rightly presented the pre-Lenin version. Vassily Savenko, a Russian who has been living in England for the last ten years or so, sang Susanin. His English was not always clear. In the early stages his tone was rather muffled, but in the second part he sang out more, his long final scene being performed very sensitively, very sensitively indeed. One shared Susanin’s torment.

COG must be congratulated for allowing us to hear an opera rarely given in Britain. The next offering will be a double bill of Puccini’s “Le Villi” and the more frequently encountered “Cavalleria Rusticana” of Mascagni. That’s at the QEH on 26 February.

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