Tchaikovsky’s first surviving opera, Oprichnik, gets a vibrant performance from Chelsea Opera Group

Tchaikovsky was fascinated by opera; he started writing around 20 of which nine survive as complete works. We know so very few of them well. His first opera to survive was Oprichnik which debuted in 1874, so comes at the time he was working on his first two symphonies. It was performed in concert by Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992, which was the work’s UK premiere. On Saturday night (11 March 2023) the ever-enterprising Chelsea Opera Group gave Tchaikovsky’s Oprichnik its English premiere at Cadogan Hall. James Ham conducted with Seljan Nasibli as Natalya, Brian Smith Walters as Andrey, Yvonne Howard as Andrey’s mother, Stephen Richardson as Natalya’s father, Elinor Rolfe Johnson as Natalya’s maid and Nicholas Lester as Prince Vyazminsky.

The title translates as The Guardsman and refers to Tsar Ivan IV’s hated political police. The opera takes place during Ivan’s reign under the weight of oppression from the Oprichniks. The libretto is by Tchaikovsky himself, based on an existing historical drama by Ivan Lazhechnikov. This had been written in 1843, but the play was not performed, due to censorship, until 1867 and then repeated during the 1869/1870 season. And by 1870, Tchaikovsky was talking about writing an opera based on the play, though for the first scene, with Natalya and her ladies in the garden, the entire libretto was lifted from Tchaikovsky’s earlier, discarded opera, The Voyevoda and there are around seven numbers in Oprichnik which include reworked music from The Voyevoda (see the Tchaikovsky Research Project for details).

Evidently, in the libretto, Tchaikovsky was aiming at the sort of historical sweep created by Eugène  Scribe, but what the piece felt like was the type of historical narrative provided by Mussorgsky or Borodin in their operas. The somewhat discontinuous narrative (we don’t see the hero and heroine meet until late in the opera though they are in love before the opera starts), its reliance on historical background and the vibrant, Russian-infused score full of big brassy moments and folk-inspired melodies, all these contribute to a particular atmosphere. Tchaikovsky had lost faith in the opera even before the premiere, and he always meant to come back to it and never did.

The plot plunges us straight in and requires us to understand that Prince Vyazminsky has already ruined Andrey’s family; as a result, Andrey’s father is dead and he and his mother live in poverty. For most of the opera, Andrey burns for revenge but goes about it in the most unsatisfactory way possible. He joins the hated Oprichniks, which makes his mother curse him and brings him under the control of his enemy, Prince Vyazminsky, who is an important member. The romance with Natalya is set against her being married against her will, and the final act is the tragic intersection of these two arcs.

Chelsea Opera Group presented a strong cast and gave a performance that in many ways brought out the best in the opera. Unfortunately, there was one aspect that was unsatisfactory. Tchaikovsky wrote for an orchestra with double woodwind, plus piccolo, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and harp, and his orchestral writing had much of the resonance and vibrancy of his early symphonies. For much of the opera, conductor James Ham gave the orchestra its head. There was nothing at all wrong with this, what they played was vivid, vibrant and full of colour, it is just that in the rather resonant small space of Cadogan Hall, the orchestra was often too loud for the soloists. Throughout the opera, in any of the louder or more lively passages, the orchestra over dominated.

That said, there was much to enjoy in the individual performances. Andrey seemed something of a dry run for Herman in The Queen of Spades, both men are unsympathetic obsessives for whom love seems secondary, only here Andrey is obsessive about revenge and regaining his family position, which means he plunges thoughtlessly into becoming a member of the Oprichniks. Brian Smith Walters gave a heroic performance of a taxing and frankly unsympathetic role. When finally, in Act Four, Andrey expresses and justifies himself, Smith Walters was able to give us more emotional depth, but throughout the opera, his strong performance and heroic singing helped anchor the piece.

We never do get a real love scene for Andrey and Natalya, their one proper scene together in Act Four is marred by the fact that Natalya now has a terrible sense of foreboding. For much of the opera, she is restless and unsatisfied, desperate not to be pushed into a loveless marriage with an older man. Azerbaijani soprano Seljan Nasibli gave a vibrant and sympathetic performance as Natalya, really bringing this dissatisfied young woman to life. It was a shame that she never got a big finish; at the end of Act Four, Natalya is simply ordered to go and see the Tsar, on her own. But Nasibli impressed with the way she did so much with so little, and I would love to see her as a more developed Tchaikovsky heroine like Lisa in The Queen of Spades.

Andrey’s mother (she is simply Boyarina Morozova, we don’t seem to get her Christian name) was perhaps the most rounded character in the opera. Her two long scenes really developed, and it helped that Yvonne Howard gave a poignant and mesmerising performance. In her first scene, she is lamenting their poverty, with God punishing them, but she is mistrustful of where her son has got his money from. Rightly so, in fact, and he lies, concealing that it comes from his joining the Oprichniks. Then in Act Three, she attempts to give succour to the fleeing Natalya, but all that is overridden by the appearance of Andrey with the Oprichniks, and the act ends with the mother cursing the son. A terrifically vicious moment from Howard, then she appears briefly at the end of the opera as Prince Vyazminsky gleefully shows her Andrey being executed.

As the villain of the piece, Prince Vyazminsky, Nicholas Lester did wonders with a woefully underwritten part. We got no background, never really heard from Prince Vyazminsky himself. But Lester, looking stylishly the part on the platform, brought a sort of gleeful relish to his whole performance. This Prince Vyazminsky was most definitely a nasty piece of work.

Like most of the people in the opera, Natalya’s father, Prince Zhemchuzniy, is desperate. He has no dowry to give his daughter and needs to sell her to the highest bidder. Stephen Richardson brought this strong character out in his few scenes. And Aidan Smith gave a sterling account of the small role of the elderly boyar marrying Natalya.

One key player in the drama is Fyodor Basmanov, already of member of the Oprichniks and who encourages Andrey to join up. Basmanov blithely seduces Andrey into joining without thought of the consequences. Interestingly, the part was written for mezzo-soprano which rather suggested his youth, and this was something Emma Stannard brought out in her fine performance. Elinor Rolfe Johnson gave fine support as Natalya’s maid in Act One.

The chorus was in strong voice, providing robust support in the many choral passages that the work provides. This is very much a rousing opera, and it is intriguing that it has not been done more. The orchestra gave us much to enjoy, it was just a shame that James Ham did not rein them in occasionally.

Robert Hugill

Tchaikovsky: Oprichnik

Natalya – Seljan Nasibli, Andrey – Brian Smith Walters, Boyarina Morozova (Andrey’s Mother) – Yvonne Howard, Prince Zhemchuzniy (Natalya’s father) – Stephen Richardson, Prince Vyazminsky – Nicholas Lester, Fyodor Basmanov – Emma Stannard, Conductor – James Ham

Chelsea Opera Group, Cadogan Hall, London; Saturday 11th March 2023.

ABOVE: Oprichniki, painting by Nikolai Nevrev