Rimsky-Korsakov's 'The Maid of Pskov'

The Taming of Ivan the Terrible

THE HIT SINGLE

In this Act One duet, Olga and Tucha are determined to be married, despite her father's objections. In St. Petersburg, the young lovers were played by soprano Irina Mataeva and tenor Mikhail Vishnyak.

The B Side

In Act Two, the people of Pskov welcome Tsar Ivan to the city. It's one of Russian opera's most vivid crowd scenes, ending with the deafening peal of church bells.

"The Maid of Pskov" in St. Petersburg i i

For it's 2008-09 season, the Mariinsky Theatre revived a 1952 production of The Maid of Pskov. Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre
"The Maid of Pskov" in St. Petersburg

For it's 2008-09 season, the Mariinsky Theatre revived a 1952 production of The Maid of Pskov.

Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre

In 1939, the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein made a splash in Hollywood with the American release of his sweeping, historical epic Alexander Nevsky. Then he followed it up in the 40's with the even more sprawling, three-part drama, Ivan the Terrible.

To many movie buffs, these films surely seemed new and exotic, with their colorful, Russian settings and dark, psychological undertones. Opera fans, on the other hand, may have recognized the movies as part of a theatrical trend dating back to the previous century.

In the mid-1800's, a group of young composers got together in St. Petersburg. Now known as "The Mighty Handful," their goal was to establish a distinctly Russian school of composing, and Russian history was one of their most important tools.

When it comes to opera, the most famous product of their efforts is Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Other members of the group also pitched in — notably Alexander Borodin, with Prince Igor. And there was another, less familiar contribution from a composer not known for somber, historical dramas: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Though Rimsky-Korsakov is familiar to many music lovers for his brilliantly orchestrated concert music — including the symphonic poem Scheherezade — he also wrote a dozen or so operas. Most of them are showy concoctions based on fantastic stories from Russian folklore and legend. But his first opera, The Maid of Pskov, is something else altogether. It's a complex, psychological drama, steeped in history and driven by one of the same characters that later inspired Eisenstein, the 16th-century czar, Ivan IV.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera explores a specific event during Ivan's long reign. In 1570, the czar destroyed the rebellious city of Novgorod. But for some reason, he then spared its nearby, sister city, Pskov. In The Maid of Pskov, that decision is explained with a distinctly operatic spin: The fearsome conqueror Ivan took mercy on the city because it was home to his long lost daughter. The "maid" of Pskov, it turns out, is Ivan the Terrible's love child.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Maid of Pskov from the same venue where the opera had its 1873 world premiere, the historic Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It's a revival of a Mariinsky production first staged in 1952. The performance is led by one of today's foremost interpreters of Russian opera, conductor Valery Gergiev.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'The Maid of Pskov"

Alexei Tanovitski and Irina Mateva

Ivan the Terrible (bass Alexei Tanovitski) realizes that Olga (soprano Irina Mateva) is his long lost daughter, in Act Two of The Maid of Pskov. Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre
Irina Mataeva and Ludmila Kanunnikova

Olga (Irina Mataeva, left) confides in her nurse, Vlasyevna (Ludmila Kanunnikova) in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov. Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre hide caption

itoggle caption Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre

WHO'S WHO?

  • Irina Mataeva ................. Olga
  • Alexei Tanovitsky .......... Ivan IV
  • Mikhail Vishnyak ............. Tucha
  • Genady Bezzubenkov ... Tokmakov
  • Nikolai Gassiev .............. Matuta
  • Ludmila Kanunnikova ... Vlasyevna
  • Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Chorus
  • Valery Gergiev, conductor

ACT ONE begins outside the home of Prince Tokmakov, in the Russian city of Pskov. Olga, Tokmakov's youthful daughter, is in the garden with some friends and the nurse Vlasyevna tells them all a folk tale.

When Olga is left alone, the young man Tucha quietly appears. He and Olga are hoping to be married and they sing a love duet. But Tokmakov doesn't approve the match. Instead, he has arranged for Olga to marry an older man, called Matuta.

Before long, Tokmakov and Matuta are heard entering the garden. Tucha runs off, while Olga hides, and overhears her father's conversation. Tokmakov tells Matuta that Olga really isn't his daughter at all. She's actually the child of his wife's sister, and her father is unknown.

The scene changes to the main square in Pskov, where the citizens have assembled. A messenger rides in with news. The Czar Ivan, has destroyed nearby Novgorod and now he's headed their way. Tokmakov urges the people to submit to Ivan and hope for mercy. Tucha disagrees. He assembles a band of rebellious militants, and they march off to defend the city.

As ACT TWO opens, with the Czar and his army approaching, Olga and Vlasyevna worry about the fate of Pskov. Hoping to avoid destruction, the people of the city hail Ivan as he enters the square in a grand chorus that ends with the deafening peal of church bells.

The scene changes to Tokmakov's home, where Ivan has made his headquarters. He ridicules the citizens of Pskov, and their hope of remaining independent. It's time for a meal, and Ivan demands to be served, personally, by the lady of the house. That's Olga — and when she appears with the food, the Czar is obviously shaken.

When Ivan and Tokmakov are alone, the Czar learns that Olga is the daughter of Tokmakov's sister — a woman named Vera Sheloga. Hearing this, Ivan immediately orders his troops to stand down, and leave Pskov in peace.

ACT THREE opens on a road in the woods, where Olga and Tucha have arranged a meeting. While they're together, Matuta shows up. His men attack Tucha, beating him severely, and then drag Olga away.

The opera's final scene takes place in the Czar's encampment, where Ivan is pondering his next move. When he learns that Olga has been abducted, he's angry. He orders his men to find her, and bring her to him. When she appears, he addresses her using a patronymic — calling her Olga Ivanovna —and that reveals the truth. Ivan himself is the father Olga never knew.

Then there's a commotion outside the camp. Tucha and his rebels never learned that the Czar has suspended his attack on Pskov. They now confront Ivan's forces, bent on killing the Czar himself. As they approach Ivan's tent, Olga is caught in the crossfire and shot to death. Tucha's men move confidently toward the city, leaving Ivan to mourn for his daughter as the opera ends.

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