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S & H International Opera Review

Mula melts the heart of Bizetís fearsome Czar
Bizet, Ivan IV
, Orchestre National de France, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 28 March, 2002 (FC)


History being my area of study at university, I was not as surprised as some in the audience when they read the story of this almost unknown opera by the composer of Carmen. Sounding like it was ripped from the headlines of this year, it is the story of Czar Ivan IV (sometimes referred to by uncharitable elements as "the Terrible") and an assassination plot against him by Moslem extremists in the Caucasus who were feeling oppressed. The operatic complication here is that the tenor assigned to do the deed arrives to find his long-lost sister has just married the monster.

The last act remained only partially complete before the composer's untimely death and the opera received its first performance only in 1947. Rarely performed since then, this edition has an ending to Act V composed by the English composer and conductor Howard Williams. A work of powerful expression, this is Bizet's only grand opera and an impressive finale finish each of the acts, requiring the singers to struggle to be heard against a massed chorus and orchestra. Bizet's keen dramatic sense infuses a relatively static plot with fresh melody and strong ensembles and it in no way deserves its present neglect.

This concert performance is part of an annual effort by the Orchestre National de France to bring some of these neglected masterpieces to light (last year it was the Fauré opera, Pénélopé.) Conducted by the skilled Michael Schönwandt, director of the opera in Copenhagen, it was accompanied by a gifted cast of singers who made a strong case for the value of this music. Soprano Inva Mula is the young girl who wins the fearsome Czar's heart. Her powerful dramatic soprano was equally matched by the Australian tenor Julian Gavin as her brother, Igor. French baritone Ludovic Tézier was our sturdy Czar and bass Paul Gay struggled a bit with the heaviness of the role of Temrouk. The Young Bulgarian, here sung by the talented soprano Henriette Bonde-Hansen, has some of the most appealing music in this work.

Bizet made no effort to compose in a "Russian" style, despite the setting in and around the Kremlin, and the stirring scenes reflect his own musical style and owe much to Meyerbeer tradition of grand opera. This performance was live on France Musiques and those who recorded it have a copy that hopefully captured the excitement in the hall and should bear repeated hearings.

Frank Cadenhead


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