work of art by using such “old values” and
traditional forms as arias with beautiful
melodies, choruses with classical counter-
point and robust ensembles.
He found the plot for the historic drama
in the verses of the poet Lev Mey (1822–62),
who was also the author of The Maid of
Pskov, which furnished the plot for Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera of the same name and,
like The Tsar’s Bride, centered on Ivan the
Terrible. Created as a heroic national drama
of the people, The Maid of Pskov is close in
style and spirit to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov,
which was written at the same time and even
under the same roof.
Mey’s The Tsar’s Bride was different. The
play is based on the story of the mysterious
death of Ivan the Terrible’s third wife.
According to historians, after being widowed
for a while, the Tsar decided to marry again
and was looking for a beautiful maiden from
a noble family. A national search in 1570
found two thousand candidates. The Tsar
briefly met them and ultimately chose Marfa
Sobakina, the daughter of a minor nobleman
from town of Kolomna. Though she fell ill
soon after the engagement, a lavish wedding
took place. The marriage was never consummated, because Marfa did not recover from
her strange illness and died less then a
month after the wedding.
Mixing these facts with fantasy, Mey’s
drama and the subsequent opera involve two
fatal love triangles, in which the innocent
Marfa and her childhood sweetheart, the
noble and gentle Ivan Lykov, fall victim to
the passions of two other characters: Grigory
Gryaznoy, a member of the much-feared
Tsar’s “army,” the Oprichniks; and his lover,
Lyubasha, who had been kidnapped by the
Oprichniks and kept as Gryaznoy’s mistress.
Jealous of Grigory’s new, all-consuming (if
unreciprocated) love for Marfa, Lyubasha
secretly changes the love potion — which
Grigory, hoping to attract Marfa, had
obtained from a “medicine man” — for
The first tsar. The Tsar’s Bride focuses on
the brief marriage of Ivan IV, a.k.a. ‘Ivan
the Terrible’ (right), to Marfa Sobakina,
his third wife, who died mysteriously
days after their wedding. The Tsar has no
singing role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera
and appears in only one scene, yet his
presence looms throughout. (Opposite:)
French soprano Cecile Thevenetas
Lioubacha as Marfa (Paris, 1911).
another, poisonous one, which Lyubasha
purchased with sexual favors from the same
devilish doctor. The potion kills Marfa soon
after she becomes the Tsar’s bride.
The contrast between two female
characters — one delicate, innocent, passive,
ephemeral and unsuited to reality; the other
down-to-earth, strong, and passionately
fighting for her life and her love — was not
new for Rimsky-Korsakov, but was never
expressed with such depth. Each heroine
inspires sympathy: Lyubasha with her sad, a
cappella folk song, the trio with Gryaznoy
and Bomelius (the medicine man), and the
climactic arioso and duet with Gryaznoy;
and Marfa with her two great arias.
The Tsar himself does not have a singing
part and appears only for a moment, gazing
at Marfa — though his shadow is felt in the
opera’s dark colors: the cruel whim of power
corrupts and destroys those who are close to it.
The Tsar’s Bride marks a departure in
Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositional style as well.
Known for his restraint and rationality — both
in life and music — he opens himself up as
never before to a wider range of emotions and
human complexity. The workings of the inner
life — rather than exotic fantasies, ancient
rituals or colorful landscapes — now rule
his imagination. The composer seems much
closer to his characters.
The opera relies heavily on long vocal lines
based on Russian song, and also on what had
heretofore been Tchaikovsky’s territory: urban
romance. Rimsky-Korsakov complements
the rich vocal parts with an equally rich and l O