The Tsar’s Bride at the Estonian National Opera


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera in four acts
Libretto by Ilya Tyumenev based on the drama of the same name by Lev Mey

T, 13 October 2016 / 19:00             S, 15 October 2016 / 19:00

World premiere on November 2, 1899 at the Moscow theater of the Private Opera of S. I. Mamontov
Premiere at the Helikon-Opera on September 6, 1997

  • Approx. running time: 2 h (one intermission)
  • Performed in Russian, subtitles in Estonian

    The dreadful story telling of a beautiful fiancée of Ivan the Terrible, brutal rivalry, withering love and poisoned jealousy is based on the true events of the past. Not trying to recreate the colorful details of the way of life, the theatre is thoroughly recreating the spirit of those dark times, searching for psychological motives of the deeds, trying to answer eternal questions standing before a native Russian.


The plot of“The Tsar’s Bride” by Lev Aleksandrovich Mei provoked interest in Rimski-Korsakov yet in his young days. In “Chronicle of My Musical Life” Nikolai Andreevich wrote about the winter of 1867/68: “At Borodin’s we looked through the score of his symphony, talked about “Prince Igor” and “The Tsar’s Bride”, the wish to compose which had been first a Borodin’s fleeting dream of a composer and then mine some time ago”. He might be mistaken: the concept of “Prince Igor” relates to 1869. It is proven that Rimski-Korsakov turned to “The Tsar’s Bride” in February 1898. The script was developed by the composer himself, while the libretto was written by his student Ilya Fyodorovich Tyumenev.

Mei’s drama was inspired by true events. Among its sources is “The History of the Russian State” by Nikolay Mikhailovich Karamzin, who said about Ivan the Terrible: “Being bored with his widowerhood, though not celibate, he had already long been looking for a third wife… The brides from all the Russian cities both noble-born and simple of over two thousand were brought to the Alexandrov Kremlin: each one was personally introduced to him. First he chose a 24-year-old, then a 12-year-old… he was comparing their beauty, manners and intellect for a long while; finally he preferred Marfa Vasilyevna Sobakina to the others, a daughter of a Novgorod merchant, at the same time he chose the bride for the senior prince — Evdokia Bogdanovna Saburova. The fathers of the lucky beauties suddenly became boyars from nothing. Beside the titles they also got the wealth, opal mining, estates, taken away from the ancient knyaz and boyar families. But the tsar’s bride fell sick, began to thin and dry: people said she had been spoilt by the malefactors, who hated Ivan. A wicked slanderer doctor Yelisey Bomelius had offered the Tsar to poison the malefactors and composed, as people said, a poisonous philtre so craftily, that the poisoned person died exactly in a designated minute. Ivan executed one of his favorites Grigory Gryaznoy this way and many others, who were accused of the participation in the poisoning of the tsar’s bride…” The author completed the play in 1849 and it became ingrained in the repertoire of the Russian theatres. One of the outstanding performers of Marfa was Maria Nikolaevna Yermolova. But the popular drama was eclipsed by Rimski-Korsakov’s opera of the same name that premiere half-a-century later. There were no significant changes in the plot; many verses of the drama were included in the libretto. Two new episodes appeared: the scene, when Grozny meets with Marfa and the scene of the crapulence of the oprichniks in the second act. Tyumenev worked quickly alongside with the creation of the music, and the opera was completed within ten months.

“The Tsar’s Bride” premiered on 22 October (3 November) 1899 by efforts of private theatre company of Savva Mamontov, those time bearing the name “Winter Private Opera”. The part of Marfa was sung by Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela-Vrubel, the sets were made by Mikhail Vrubel, and the conductor was Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.

The Feast
The Tsar’s oprichnik Grigory Gryaznoy is fatally in love for the first time in his life. He vainly sends the in-laws to the father of his beloved Marfa: the merchant Sobakin refuses him flatly, because Marfa has already been betrothed to the boyar Ivan Lykov.
The guests are arriving at Grigory’s. Among them are Malyuta Skuratov, Bomelius (the Tsar’s healer) and Ivan Lykov who just returned from overseas. Grayznoy secretly asks the healer to get the love philtre for the Marfa’s binding and promises to award him generously for his help. Their talk has been overheard by Gryaznoy’s lover Lyubasha. She won’t concede her happiness and will take revenge to her wicked rival in love.

The Love Philtre
A street in the Alexandrov Kremlin. Marfa is telling Dunyasha about her beloved groom Ivan Lykov. The conversation has been interrupted by a terrible ghost — Tsar Ivan has walked at a distance, looking at them. In the gloaming Lyubasha steals up to the Sobakin’s house. She is amazed with the Marfa’s beauty. Lyubasha decides to kill her rival, replacing the love philtre with poison. Bomelius is ready to carry out her wish, but demands her love in exchange for it. Lyubasha agrees to this shameful bargain.

The Best Man
There are wedding preparations in the Sobakin’s house. It is high time they celebrated, but everything has been interrupted by the Tsar’s request for the brides, for which the best beauties have been gathered at the palace. Lykov is worried as well as Grigory. Finally Marfa returns. Everybody is calmed down, congratulating the groom and the bride. Taking the opportunity, Gryaznoy pours the philtre into Marfa’s glass. Suddenly Malyuta and boyars appear: the Tsar has chosen not Dunyasha to be his wife as the couple has hoped, but Marfa.

The Bride
Sobakin is deeply saddened by his daughter’s incurable illness. Gryaznoy tells Marfa, that under torture Lykov confessed his intention to kill the Tsar’s bride with poison and has been executed for it. Marfa can’t bear the grief. In her insanity she sees not Gryaznoy beside her, but her beloved groom Vanya. She tells him about her strange dream. Gryaznoy is frightened by Marfa’s insanity: he has ruined her instead of binding to himself. Being unable to bear the sufferings Gryaznoy confesses the crime — he poisoned Marfa and maligned Lykov. Lubasha confesses that she has replaced the love philtre with the poison and Gryaznoy kills her in a bout of fury.

Staging team

Stage Director: Dmitry Bertman
Musical Director of the Production: Kirill Tikhonov
Conductor: Eugene Brazhnik
Set and Costume Designers: Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubieva
Lighting Designer: Denis Yenyukov
Stage Movement Director: Yuri Ustyugov


Grigory Gyaznoy, an oprichnik Alexey Isayev
Lyubasha, Grigory Gryaznoy’s lover Larisa Kostiuk
Marfa, Vasily Sobakin’s daughter Lidiya Svetozarova
Ivan Lїkov, boyar Igor Morozov
Yelisey Bomeliy, the Tsar’s physician Dmitry Khromov
Dunyasha, Domna Saburova’s daughter and Marfa’s friend Irina Reynard
Vasily Sobakin, Novgorodian merchant Mikhail Guzhov
Grigory Malyuta-Skuratov, an oprichnik Dmitry Skorikov
Domna Saburova, the merchant’s wife Elena Mikhailenko
The Tsar’s stoker Dmitry Korotkov
A maiden Ekaterina Myazina
A bell-ringer Andrey Orekhov

Helikon-Opera Chorus and Orchestra

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