The Tsar's Bride - Royal Opera House, 20 April 2011
When Covent Garden tackled Prokofiev's The Gambler last year, ticket prices were pegged at a maximum of £50. It sold out - bringing in many first time visitors in the process. Despite the opera's obscurity, its unstarry cast and equivocal reviews. Did the Royal Opera House learn anything from that? Obviously not.
Why not just price realistically in the first place? Surely a full house at half price is better than a half-empty house at full price? Quite apart from ticking the access-broadening box, it makes cold hard business sense to draw in a new audience, because they're the repeat customers of the future.
It was disheartening to see so many empty seats, not least because this is a great evening out, even if the music isn't top drawer. Paul Curran's lively production transplants the tale from the court of Ivan the Terrible to modern Moscow's scary mafia subculture. In the grim opening scene, waiters dispose of a torture victim's body as easily as a dirty plate. Detailed, realistic designs are complemented by projected backdrops to create a restaurant, rooftop pool, and street as convincing as film sets. The characters who populate them seem drawn if not from life then at least from Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. The cinematic approach only falters in the final act, where it's undercut by the story's preposterous and uniquely operatic sequence of poisoning, insanity, confessions and deaths.
Mark Elder made the music sound far more exciting and dramatically sculpted than it actually is, a real achievement, and the ROH orchestra were in far better (and more lively) form than their Met equivalents earlier in the month.
Some excellent performances were led by Johan Reuter's Gryaznoy, the enforcer whose unrequited love for Marfa forces him into slipping her a love potion. It's the only role with any significant dimension, and despite the brutality he shows in the torture scene, Reuter retains that shred of decency that makes him seem capable of true love.
As Lyubasha, the mistress he casts aside in his pursuit of Marfa, Ekaterina Gubanova displayed the chesty power of Borodina, and only slightly less tonal allure. Dmitry Popov's raw tenor gave an authentically Russian ring to Marfa's fiance Lïkov, and Jurgita Adamonyte shone as her friend Dunyasha.
Which leaves the Tsar's bride herself, Marina Poplavskaya as Marfa. Now I'm a great fan of Poplavskaya. I know she has some technical shortcomings, but for me they fade in the face of her overall impact. I can find expression where others hear dodgy intonation, dramatic intensity where they notice shortness of breath, and volcanic charisma in place of the icy indifference others have remarked on.
On this occasion though, there was something missing - and I'm not talking about the men's tie that would have lent her scratchy-looking second act pantsuit the full Annie Hall effect. Technically, she sang pretty well - the role lies well for her and doesn't make demands she can't meet. But her performance seemed phoned in, as if she'd been dragged away from something far more interesting for another day at the office. Perhaps she had.