Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in Frankfurt

It is not easy to find performances of works by Glinka, father of Russian opera though he may be. So, I was pleased to have a chance to get to A Life for the Tsar, given in its original title Ivan Susanin, at Frankfurt; a revival of a production given in 2015. It is a heroic-tragic piece, based on fact, relating how a Russian farmer sacrifices his life by leading the invading Polish forces into a deep forest from which they are unable to escape, thus ensuring their defeat by the newly elected Tsar Mikhail, the first of the Romanoff dynasty. The libretto is somewhat naïve, consisting mainly of declamations of patriotism, loyalty, love and family affection, with only rudimentary characterisation; and the drama evolves through a series of tableaux, each with a major role for the chorus. The music is sprightly and engaging, some of it is based on Russian folk music but, in the fourth Act, it becomes weightier, involving three extensive and demanding arias as the drama reaches its climax.

The production by veteran director Harry Kupfer was somewhat old-fashioned and in parts clumsy (though the latter may be the responsibility of the revival director). I nevertheless liked the idea of making the “goodies” into partisans fighting nasty sophisticated invaders not from Poland but from Germany (!). Fortunately Kupfer stopped short of using Nazi uniforms, but I could feel some tension around me in the audience when “Sieg Heil!” was uttered. The final tableau also made its mark. To celebrate the victory, the Russians were assembled at the Kremlin. The armed forces sang the national hymn from scores but, once this enforced patriotic duty was accomplished, they discarded their military uniforms and mingled with the general populace.

British conductor, Justin Brown – currently music director at the Karlsruhe Opera – kept the piece moving well, with an almost Italianate fluidity. The greatest pleasure of the evening came from the singing. Dmitry Belosselskiy, the Ukranian Ivan Susanin, must be one of the most exciting basses currently around. The great voice rolled across the auditorium and what joy to hear the language and vocal phrases articulated with authentic Russian “colour”. Impressive too was tenor Anton Rositskiy in the role of the leader of the partisans. He produced a lovely, clean sound, homogenously smooth throughout the middle and upper registers. Kateyrna Kasper as his betrothed sang beautifully, particularly when spinning out pianissimi, but she did not make enough of her role dramatically. In contrast, Katharina Magiera contributed a vivid and poignant portrayal of the orphan Vanja.