The Staatstheater Meiningen initially announced Georges Bizet’s “Ivan IV” as the stage premiere of a long-lost Grand Opéra. Artistic Director Jens Neundorff von Enzberg wanted to make his debut there in 2021 with “Ivan IV” – but the requirements of a complex Grand Opéra could not be met due to corona restrictions.
However, only the fifth act of the opera, which was reconstructed in the 1970s and has so far only been recorded in concert, is new. However, the “Chamber Opera St. Petersburg” has now preempted the Meiningen Theater for a staged premiere: this five-act version premiered there in December 2022.
The fact that the Meiningen premiere fell on February 24 of all times, i.e. the anniversary of the beginning of the Russian war of aggression, was a date that had been set for a long time and nobody wanted to postpone it in retrospect. A minute’s silence at the beginning and handkerchiefs with the Ukrainian flag reminded of this.
But the work itself bears little relation to current events. Certainly the view of the work has changed significantly in the last year, especially since it is about “Ivan the Terrible” and his urge for cruelty and brutal campaigns. But if you try to draw parallels with Putin, for example, you quickly come to a dead end.
Complex feelings of a politician
The newly introduced fifth act in particular shows the tsar, who was believed to be dead and initially eliminated by his evil adversary Yorloff, as a balancing, conciliatory ruler. The director of the St. Petersburg performance, Yuri Alexandrov, even specifically pointed out that Bizet’s work shows understanding with the Slavic world and portrays a person known throughout the world for cruelty and rigidity, but capable of devotion, an essentially loving politician living through complex emotions and contradictions.
However, the image of Ivan the Terrible in Meiningen is not as positive as in St. Petersburg. In Bizet’s opera, the history of the Russian tsars and the battle for the Caucasus form at best a backdrop against which the psychological conflicts stand out, apart from the fact that the music in “Ivan IV” lacks any Russian folkloric color.
An evening of strong contrasts
Again and again conductor Philippe Bach effectively whips up the Meiningen court orchestra to great emotional tension: murder and immediately great love, love of homeland and immediate turning away from one’s own origins. The bipolar changes take place at great speed and in three major recognition scenes of brother and sister, friend and foe.
Most impressive are the appearances of the tsar as a lost wanderer, as someone believed dead, as a lover or as someone collapsing in a fit of madness (Tomasz Wija). But the heroine of Bizet’s opera is the Circassian princess and later wife of the Tsar Marie (Mercedes Arcuri): she lives out her contradictory, rapidly changing behavior (enmity and infatuation) in two downright breathtaking arias. Among a few less effective numbers, the trio of those three who unknowingly conspired against Marie is particularly impressive: her father (Paul Gay), her brother (Alex Kim) and the extremely malicious schemer full of falsehood the boyar Yorloff (Shin Taniguchi).
The ballet scenes usual in the Grand Opéra are missing, but Hinrich Horstkotte, director and at the same time also set designer, lets the chorus and extra chorus dance in traditional choreography, for example when waiting for the people on the occasion of the Tsar’s wedding, an extremely personal tableaux.
The costumes are almost exclusively white and black, the stage appears almost abstract with white blocks as Caucasian mountain rocks, boards as trees. Dark sliding walls delimit the scene, only the tsar’s wedding bed stands in between like an icon. Stripped of Russian folklore, Horstkotte reveals the core of Bizet’s “Ivan IV”: opera as a diagnosis of madness and psychological contradictions.
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