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Mikhail GLINKA (1804 - 1857)
Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar) (1836)
Nicola Ghiuselev (bass) - Ivan Susanin; Elena Stoyanova (soprano) - Antonida, Susanin’s daughter; Hristina Angelakova (mezzo-soprano) - Vanya, an orphan; Roumen Doikov (tenor) - Bogdan Sobinin, Antonida’s bridegroom; Nicolai Stoilov (bass) - A Russian soldier; Angel Petkov (tenor) - A Polish messenger; Dimiter Stanchev (bass) - Sigismund III, King of Poland
Sofia National Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ivan Marinov
rec. August 1986, Bulgaria Concert Hall
BRILLIANT OPERA COLLECTION 94220 [3 CDs: 75:36 + 61:25 + 63:05]

“Glinka belonged to, or rather founded, the Russian national school of opera. He was also the first Russian composer who set Russian music on the European musical map. He travelled widely in Europe, met both Bellini and Donizetti in Milan and it is possible to hear an influence from them in this, the first of his two operas. There are several arias that have a typical Italian bel canto cantilena. He was also influenced by Rossini; vocally if not dramatically. Sobinin’s part seems modelled after Arnold in Guillaume Tell with its extremely high-lying tessitura and need for power and brilliance. Still it is the Russian element that dominates this score, not least in the important choral parts. It’s also characteristic of much of the Russian operatic legacy that the chorus, the Russian people, play such an important part. He might have learnt something from Rossini, Guillaume Tell again, but essentially the patriotic feeling paired with an easily recognizable Russian tone was his pioneering contribution to Russian music. This element became part and parcel of the Russian operatic tradition, witness the operas of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.
“Premiered in 1836, Ivan Susanin was an immediate success. When before the first performance Glinka changed the title to A Life for the Tsar the Tsar also took it to his heart, not surprisingly, and accepted Glinka’s dedication. During the Soviet regime the subject of the opera was not comme-il-faut but since it was regarded as a kind of national opera the text was revised, on Stalin’s initiative, eliminating all references to the Romanov dynasty. With the original title restored it was played again at the Bolshoi in 1939. The revision also meant that parts of the score were removed altogether.”
The above paragraphs are from my review of a Naxos reissue of a Bolshoi recording originally set down in 1947 and 1950. With all the omissions mentioned it had a playing time around 35 minutes shorter than the present recording, which as far as I can understand is absolutely complete.
The action takes place in a village near Moscow and in a Polish army camp in 1613. In the first act Ivan Susanin, a peasant, brings the news that the Polish invaders are marching towards Moscow. This causes general alarm. His son-in-law to be, the soldier Sobinin, comes home and reports that the Polish forces have been defeated and a new Tsar elected. This also means that now Sobinin and Antonida can be married. In act two a big ball is held in the Polish camp. The officers learn that a new Tsar is to be crowned and plan to kidnap him. In the third act, while the village people sing patriotic songs about Russia’s victory and Susanin is planning his daughter’s wedding, Polish soldiers arrive and try to force Susanin to show them where the future Tsar is hidden. He agrees but decides to lead them astray and sends his foster-son Vanya to warn the young Tsar. In the fourth act the soldiers realise that Susanin has fooled them and he is killed. The epilogue takes place in Moscow, in Red Square, where the people rejoice in the salvation of the Tsar and mourn Susanin as a hero. Finally the Tsar arrives and is crowned.
The colourful music cries out for a spectacular recording and alas that is not quite what it gets. Though fairly decent it is still a lacklustre sound, the orchestra sounds dull and flat. This is damaging for the overture, not anywhere near to the scintillating fireworks of the Ruslan and Luydmila opening but still an atmospheric piece; but even more for the second act, in the Polish camp, which in effect is a prolonged ballet sequence with very little action. I don’t think the orchestral playing is to blame. The conducting is at least workmanlike and the well-drilled Sofia chorus is really excellent, in particular the female voices. The sound is homogenous and with few sprawling voices sticking out - a far cry from the raw sounds of the old Bolshoi recording. This is utterly important, since the chorus is in effect the main protagonist. The focus is on the Russian people. There are even more choral scenes here than in Boris Godunov, and the crowning glory is the concluding jubilant double chorus (CD 3 tr. 12).
The solo singing is more variable. Elena Stoyanova, who sings Antonida, has a basically beautiful voice but her heavy vibrato and shrill top notes in the long run become rather tiring and there is very little tonal variety. This Antonida is a very one-dimensional character. Her husband-to-be, Sobinin, is a hellishly difficult role with high tessitura and several high Cs. Roumen Doikov is a fighter and he has the stamina and the top notes, which are delivered with amazing ease but the tone is bright and penetrating. That said, he can sing softly at times and then the sound is quite agreeable. He also has the measure of Sobinin’s fiendishly difficult act IV aria (CD 3 tr. 2). It isn’t beautiful but he makes it, which is worth a minor celebration. The only really successful recordings of that aria are with two Nordic singers, Danish-born Helge Roswaenge, singing it in German in 1942 and the young Nicolai Gedda in the original Russian from 1957.
The trouser role Vanya doesn’t appear until the beginning of act III and then with a smile of recognition from the listener who has already heard the theme in the overture. Hristina Angelakova has personality but also a vibrato that borders on a wobble. Such is her identification with the role and her dramatic power that, especially in the great scene in act IV (CD 3 tr. 3), one readily overlooks that defect.
In the title role we hear one of the foremost basses of the second half of the 20th century, Nicola Ghiuselev. He was overshadowed by his compatriot Nicolai Ghiaurov and the Russian Evgeny Nesterenko but he had a long international career and recorded extensively. Here aged 50 the tone is somewhat greyer than in recordings from the previous decades but his legato singing is still exemplary as is his nobility of tone and he gives a rounded and deeply moving portrait of the folk hero Ivan Susanin.
Of existing alternative recordings there is the aforementioned 1957 set under Igor Markevitch with Christoff and Gedda. There’s another production from Sofia 1989 under Emil Tchakarov with Boris Martinovich, Alexandrina Pendachanska, Chris Merritt and Stefania Toczyska. The best of all categories is to my mind a DVD from Bolshoi 1992 under Alexander Lazarev with Nesterenko, Marina Mescheriakova, Alexander Lomonosov and Elena Zaremba.
However, at Brilliant Classics’ budget price - this recording was previously available on Capriccio - this is a cheap way of getting to know the full score of this historically important opera and with one of the great basses of the not so distant past.
Göran Forsling