Markevitch’s Great “Life for the Czar” Reissued

370. 1a e 4a di copertina.FH11

GLINKA: A Life for the Czar / Boris Christoff, bass (Ivan Susanin); Teresa Stich-Randall, sop (Antonida); Nicolai Gedda, ten (Bogdan Sobinin); Mela Bugarinovitch, alto (Vanya); Djurdje Djurdjevic, bass (Sigizmund, King of Poland/Russian soldier); Zhika Yovanovic, ten (Polish courier); Belgrade National Opera Chorus; Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux; Igor Markevitch, cond / Urania WS121.370-2

Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 opera A Life for the Czar, also known as Ivan Susanin, was one of only two of his operas to hit the big time (the other was 1842’s Ruslan und Ludmila, which initially fared very poorly at the box office), but although it was, and remains, an extraordinary score, based on a new approach to Russian music in which authentic folk themes were developed through Western aesthetics, it still doesn’t play very well or very often in the West.

This recording, which was almost slapped together in Belgrade—then part of Yugoslavia, now capital of Serbia—in 1957, was issued on EMI in England and Capitol Records (this was before EMI initiated their own Angel label for American releases) to little fanfare. It became a hot item among opera buffs but, due to generally disappointing sales figures (possibly because EMI was still too cheap at this point to record in stereo), it didn’t last in the catalog. Despite my being a voracious seeker of opera recordings from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, the only time I ever ran across a copy of this album was in New York City specialist shops, where it had a price tag north of $100, which was too rich for my blood.

Undoubtedly, the most unusual casting choice was that of American expatriate soprano Teresa Stich-Randall as Antonida, and she may have been another reason for its lack of sales. It wasn’t that Stich-Randall had a poor voice—on the contrary, she was a standout at Columbia University when just 17, where she had a role in the world premiere performance of Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, sang the Priestess in Aïda in Arturo Toscanini’s televised performance of that opera at age 19, and at age 20 was chosen by Toscanini to sing Nannetta in Toscanini’s 1950 performance of Falstaff—but the extreme purity of her voice, almost vibratoless, made her a pariah in her own country. Contemporary opera fans, used to voices with rich vibratos, didn’t take too well to Stich-Randall, so she had to go to Western Europe to make a career, mostly as a Mozart specialist. This recording marks a rare (perhaps her only) venture into Russian opera.

The plot, though rather basic, is still somewhat interesting. The invading Polish Army is trying to locate and kill the new Russian Czar. Ivan Susanin, an aged farmer, vows with his son Vanya to protect him; he promises to lead the Poles to him, but in fact he has alerted his son-in-law, Bogdan Sobinin, who is amassing an armed force to meet the Poles in the woods and kill them. By the time the Poles discover the ruse it is too late for them to retreat, but in retaliation they kill Susanin. Thus, he gives his life for the Czar.

The version of the opera used on this recording is the one re-orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky was absolutely keen on re-orchestrating everyone else’s Russian music; he just couldn’t help himself. He just had to put his stamp on others’ work and make sure that you, the listener, admired him for writing orchestrations that the original composers didn’t want. Of course, he did the same for Mussorgsky and even touched up a little Tchaikovsky. It was kind of his hobby.

Yet the lushness of Rimsky’s orchestration is offset to a large degree by both the mono sound and the conducting of Igor Markevitch, a Russian conductor whose aesthetics originally lay in modern, Stravinskian music. He was, to some extent, an admirer of such conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Artur Rodziński as well, thus he favored brisk tempi and a lean, clear sonority that cuts through the overly-mushy scoring that Rimsky used. There aren’t that many other recordings of this opera: an even older mono recording with Maxim Mikhailov as Susanin, Georgi Nelepp as Sobinin and conductor Vasili Nebolsin on Naxos Historical; Nicolai Ghiuselev as Susanin, Elena Stoyanova as Antonida, Roumen Doikov as Sobinin and conductor Ivan Marinov on Capriccio; a Mark Ermler recording from the 1980s with Evgeny Nesterenkov as Susanin, Bella Rudenko as Antonida and Vladimir Shcherbakov as Sobinin; and a Sony Classical version conducted by the late Emil Tchakarov with Boris Martinovich as Susanin, Alexandrina Pendachanska as Antonida and Chris Merritt as Sobinin. There are others, of course, but mostly they’ve disappeared from the catalog. None of them are as good as this performance.

It’s not just because of Markevitch, though he is a major factor in the performance. It’s also because of the presence of Boris Christoff in his prime as Susanin, tenor Nicolai Gedda in absolutely splendid voice as Sobinin (listen to him ring out those difficult high notes in his aria, “Brothers of the storm”!), and the very Slavic sound of the Bulgarian Opera Chorus. Stich-Randall is, to my ears, superb as Antonida. Her voice is purer than any of the other sopranos on competing recordings and, if she sounds inherently less Slavic than the rest of the cast (filled out, mostly, by other Bulgarian singers), her singing of the role is not that far removed from the very Western-sounding coloratura soprano Antonina Nezhdanova, who recorded arias from the opera in the early acoustic days, and who was greatly admired in old Russia for her singing of the role. Antonida’s music doesn’t call for or require Russian passion so much as it requires absolute iron control of the singer’s high range and an arsenal of staccato, fioratura and trills, all of which Stich-Randall possessed in spades. Interestingly, her method of note-separation in the coloratura passages is very similar to that practice by the late Dutch soprano Cristina Deutekom. Both sopranos were criticized by listeners for this technique, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it then and I don’t hear anything wrong with it now. It certainly allows the listener to hear every single note in her music as if it were played on a piano or a flute.

The one failing Christoff had as a singer was his inability to interpret the text of his roles with any real variety of tone color. He had but two volume levels, soft and loud. His voice always sounded rich and full at any point in his range and at either volume level, and when you saw him on stage he was a very great actor, indeed, but in just listening to him he tends to be rather two-dimensional. Of course, none of the other basses noted above sing as well as he did, although Nesterenko came close, and in this recording he sounds less snarly than usual in the early part of the role. Gedda, at that time and in this role, is also somewhat two-dimensional, but that’s the nature of the character. Sobinin is not much different from Arnold in Rossini’s William Tell, a hot-headed young man who just can’t wait to fight and die to protect his country. In this context Stich-Randall’s exquisite, sensitively-phrased Antonida sounds melting and sweet without being cloying. Listen to the Act 1 finale and you’ll get a good idea of how they complement each other. Clearly, Gedda seldom sang as consistently well on his other opera recordings, the 1960 Carmen and 1966 Abduction from the Seraglio excepted, and neither one of those operas calls for the range, both stylistically and in terms of high notes, that Life for the Czar does. And interestingly, contralto Mela Bugarinovitch, though the least well-known of the four principals, give us the most interesting interpretation. My sole complaint about the opera is that there is far too much ballet music in Act 2—14 minutes of it, in fact—and it is inferior to the rest of the opera, particularly the great last act where Susanin gets his very dramatic scene, which Christoff interprets brilliantly (evidently remembering how Chaliapin sang it).

For whatever reason, this seems to be the second time Urania has issued this recording on CD; there’s an earlier version with a different cover issued as WS121.137from 2012. I haven’t the foggiest idea why, but sound quality on this release, at least, is first-class.

Perhaps some listeners will feel that Markevitch’s Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux sounds too French, or at least too cosmopolitan, for this Russian opera, but remember, fusing Western and Eastern culture was what Glinka had in mind. Surely, the Yugoslavian chorus sings its heart out, and this helps, too. It’s small wonder that this is the classic recording of this opera. Where could you find a cast like this today—particularly a soprano like Stich-Randall and a tenor like Gedda in his early prime?

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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