From the History of the Opera

Lev Mey’s play, The Tsar’s Bride, first attracted Rimsky-Korsakov’s attention in the 60’s of the XIX century. But more than thirty years were to pass before Rimsky-Korsakov set to work on composing the music for The Tsar’s Bride, in the spring of 1898, having already written a libretto for the opera with the assistance of his former student, Ilya Tyumenev. Work on The Tsar’s Bride pro­ceeded “quickly and easily”, as the composer put it, which with Rimsky-Korsakov was always a sure sign that he was engrossed in what he was doing and in a good creative frame of mind. By sum­mer, his opera was ready in draft form, and by the autumn he had completed the orchestral score.

The Tsar’s Bride
, like his first opera, Pskovityanka, is set in the time of Ivan the Terrible (the action takes place, in 1572, in the Aleksandrov sloboda where Ivan lived for a long time). But, in The Tsar’s Bride, as distinct from Pskovityanka, there is no description of major historical events. The Tsar’s Bride is a historical-social drama. The opera centers round the tragedy of a woman of old Russ. This tragedy unfolds against a broad historical background of vividly truthful pictures of life in the age of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible himself is no an active participant in the opera. Rimsky-Korsakov only brings him on stage briefly: in a silent (Ivan does not utter a word) scene with Marfa in the street. But this short meeting is very significant and marks a turning point in the development of the drama — for now Marfa is destined to be the Tsar’s bride.

A lot of space in the opera is devoted to the oprichnina (Oprichnina — special administrative elite established in Russia by Ivan, also the territory assigned to this elite. Oprichnik — member of the oprichnina). The oprichniks are preparing in ore reprisals against the boyars and the people watch their drunken antics in horror: “Someone is in for a bad time”. Making merry in Gryaznoy’s chamber, the oprichniks sing the Tsar’s praises.

In The Tsar’s Bride, as in Rimsky-Korsakov’s other operas, the crowd scenes of dancing and singing are magnificent. But these domestic scenes just serve to emphasize the drama that is unfolding before the audience’s eyes. At the centre of the action is Marfa, whose tragedy Rimsky-Korsakov develops with great artistic skill. Her genuine humani­ty and profound sincerity make her a very appealing figure. In the words of Lev Mey, the author of the play on which the opera is based, Marfa is a “shy, timid girl, submissive to her father’s will and resigned to her fate”.

The first performance of The Tsar’s Bride took place a year after the opera had been completed, on October 22, 1899, аt Moscow’s Private Opera (Mamontov’s Company). Since then, this much-loved opera has been presented at opera-houses all over Russia. The première of The Tsar’s Bride at the Bolshoi was in 1916 and it has been a staple item in the repertoire of the latter theatre for the past eighty years.

Anatoly Solovtsov
(text from the handbook, abridged)