After some high and lows during his tenure at Welsh National Opera, it is always with some slight trepidation I approach a David Pountney production. Yet his Ivan the Terrible for Grange Park Opera is an uncharacteristically sedate affair, lacking in the excesses of violence or sex, psychological acrobatics or quirkiness – and for once it could actually have done with some of this.
With the pretty obvious exception of making Ivan the Terrible a Stalin figure (some may have expected Putin) this was all played pretty straight and this macabre episode 16th-century Russian history from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was actually rather tame.
The background for the opera is Vera, the wife of a Boyar, giving birth to a daughter Olga while her husband is away at war. She confesses to her sister Nadezhda that the father is a mysterious character. Nadezhda protects her sister by telling her husband that she is the child’s mother.
The opera itself begins with Olga a grown woman. Her home city is expecting to be ravaged by Ivan the Great as he has Novgorod as he establishes control over his realm and put down a revolt that is led by her lover, Tucha.
To cut a not very long story short Ivan spares the city when he meets Olga and realises, yes, he is her father. Captured Tucha tries to flea and a marksman accidentally shoots Olga. Poor old Ivan/Stalin is heartbroken.
Originally called The Maid of Pskov, this two-act opera has tagged on, as a Prologue, The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga, to set the scene. Yet in some ways it made the following opera more confusing, working out is now singing which role and what has happened to other characters from the prologue. The strong soprano Evelina Dobračeva takes the roles of mother and then daughter with both characters suffering from the same surfeit of Russian angst, which is vocally emotionally portrayed but would not win any Oscars. Fortunately some glorious top notes more than compensate.
Similarly, we have Carl Tanner singing a dark and powerful heroic Tucha and a whining almost ugly sound of Adrian Thompson as the despicable Matuta but both lacking in direction. A more rounded and very satisfying performance is given by David Shipley as Nadezhda’s husband Prince Tomakov (by the main opera he is the mayor of their city of Pskov), (below) and the most likeable figure having brought up Olga, going along with his wife deception.
With a very workaday set from Francis O’Connor, wooden towers that would have surrounded most large Russian cities at the time and with only a large a belfry raised and lowered to reveal the baby’s cradle giving real visual interest, there did not seem much point moving them around the stage. The costume setting was also pretty standard traditional except, of course, the revelation that under Ivan’s furs he was Stalin in military uniform.
To labour the point that Stalin admired Ivan and commissioned the Sergei Eisenstein epic of his hero, a reel of old film is projected onto the back-drop during the prelude, showing Ivan murdering his troublesome son.
The joy of the performance comes from the vibrant young chorus and Mikhail Tatarnikov stirring conducting of the recently named Gascoigne Orchestra.
Happy moment? The lovely mezzo of Liubov Sokolova as the all-knowing nanny.
Welsh John Ieuan Jones sings a robust Ivan Shelonga, Vera’s husband, in the prologue and the small role of the Tsar’s physician in the main opera with Amy Sedgwick singing a sympathetic Nadezhda in the prologue and the smaller role of Perfilyevna in Ivan the Terrible.
Clive Bayley will have to forgive me for being distracted by the almost pantomime effect of the Stalin costume and zany moustache from his seductively sonorous bass.
There are some tickets still available at the delightful Theatre in the Park that hosts Grange Park Opera. Hats off for keeping the work flowing during Covid and now welcoming us back to the Sylvan delights of the Surrey estate.
Main image: Clive Bayley and Evelina Dobračeva
Photography: Mark Brenner