Chelsea Opera Group – Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik


Oprichnik – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by the composer after Ivan Lazhechnikov’s The Oprichniks [sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Prince Zhemchuzhniy – Stephen Richardson
Molchan Mitkov – Aidan Smith
Natalya – Seljan Nasibli
Zakharyevna – Elinor Rolfe Johnson
Fyodor Basmanov – Emma Stannard
Andrey Morozov – Brian Smith Walters
Boyarinya Morozova – Yvonne Howard
Prince Vyazminsky – Nicholas Lester

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
James Ham

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 11 March, 2023
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Oprichnik (1870-2, premiered 1874) is the first of Tchaikovsky’s operas which survives, after he destroyed two earlier efforts. He wasn’t much more satisfied with this one, and it remained unheard in his lifetime after its, admittedly, successful first run of performances, as he claimed that he wished to revise the score. That task wasn’t finished before his death (if he ever intended to do so) but the manuscript at least remained intact, enabling the work to be rediscovered. However, it has been taken up very little outside of Russia, and Chelsea Opera Group claim this concert performance to be quite possibly its premiere in England (it was performed in Scotland in 1992).

Tchaikovsky salvaged some of his very first opera, The Voyevoda, for this, principally in Act One. Notwithstanding the tumultuous opening of the Introduction in a style already redolent of the composer (even if the rest is episodic) and Natalya’s brooding first song which looks ahead to Tatiana’s Letter Scene of Eugene Onegin, it is the subsequent three Acts that are the more musically distinctive and gripping – Tchaikovsky being seemingly inspired to greater feats of imagination once he broke free of simply trying to pour his old wine into new bottles.

James Ham and the COG Orchestra gave a generally engaging and enthusiastic account. Some connecting passages or sections of accompaniment plodded somewhat, but the performance was certainly animated where it mattered, such as in the dramatic climaxes at the end of Act Two as Andrey takes his oath to become an oprichnik, one of the Tsar’s personal bodyguard (which entails rejecting both his mother and lover); and at the end of Act Three as his mother, the Boyarinya Morozova, curses him for that but his friend Basmanov urges him to ask the Tsar for his oath to be dissolved. Both finales are heavily brass-laden, and the first featured the tuba, thrillingly ripping through the orchestra here to underpin Andrey’s portentous, ultimately tragic decision. The Chorus also made resounding contributions in a few exhilarated numbers when they sang en masse, though when singing separately as women and men by themselves they were weaker, with a less certain grasp of the Russian text, issuing in a rather nasal sound on the part of the men, rather than fervent, for the chorus opening the second tableau of Act Two, inspired by the music of the Orthodox Church.

In the title role, Brian Smith Walters’s Andrey was somewhat submerged by the orchestra and the Russian words, not always managing to project a convincingly firm vocal line, though evincing a certain gentleness or desperation on other occasions. Seljan Nasibli gave a richer account as his lover, Natalya – promised in marriage by her father to the older Molchan Mitkov – encompassing an impressive range of emotions and expressions in her performance, particularly for her two set pieces of Act One, ranging from pensive and moody in her duskier lower register, to a creamier radiance for her outward joy.

Yvonne Howard visibly inhabited her vivid and powerful interpretation of the troubled Boyarinya, who tragically witnesses her son’s execution at the end of the opera, engineered by the scheming Vyazminsky who exploits the strict word of Andrey’s oath which results in his punishment for breaching it. Although a touch squally under pressure, Howard nonetheless handled some florid vocal displays with technical agility. Nicholas Lester was a smoothly insidious Vyazminsky, exuding the character’s evil not with an obvious dark force but a slyly fluent account of the baritone role. As Andrey’s ally among the oprichniks, the young Basmanov, written as a trouser role for a contralto, Emma Stannard was a calm but characterful presence among the cast, rounded out by Elinor Rolfe Johnson’s dutiful Zakharyevna, and the wry pair Stephen Richardson’s Zhemchuzhniy and Aidan Smith’s Mitkov, who make the agreement for the latter to marry the former’s daughter, Natalya.

Bravo to COG for enabling us to hear this relatively early work by Tchaikovsky: even if Oprichnik is not itself a masterpiece, this rare outing offered an informative glimpse of how he developed to become one of the most widely respected of all classical composers, whether in the operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, or in his wealth of orchestral music.

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