Out of all the four new operatic releases by Gergiev and Kirov the year this was released, this one by far is the newest of the crop. There is much impressive about this new recording, but something missing in the whole effort for it to really have cut to the heart of the matter. Among Russian opera fans, this is considered to be Rimsky-Korsakov's one 'verismo' opera. Apart from the one vulgar chemist in the mix, any hint of magic in his other operas is gone, and thereby as well the human element is more prominent in this piece. Some hint of Puccinian pathos, for instance for his 'little women' could be construed to have been written into the altogether rather brief, if not fully developed character of Marfa. Lyubasha and Gryaznoy make up the difference, with the extent to which Rimsky-Korsakov very ably fleshes these two characters out. The humanity of both of them gets as satisfactory and complex treatment as that of almost any other characters do in Russian opera. This is the second opera by Rimsky-Korsakov to treat a plot related to at least an episode in the life and reign of Ivan the Terrible, the first having been his first opera, Maid of Pskov. Ivan, in this case adn more or less a deus ex machina of sorts, is a mute part, as opposed to being quite close to taking top honors as protagonist in the earlier opera.
Gergiev plays the work in a most patrician manner - elegance, eloquence of the sound taking priority over much else. The orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, as it is called now, offer playing of the highest calibre for him, nevertheless. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote this opera, in a way, as a tribute to his fallen rival, Tchaikovsky, so there is some merit to that. At the same time, the brilliance and panache of the execution of so much of the music, as performed here, takes over to the extent of glibly covering some of the most elemental facets of this enigmatic work. One's taste for a saltier approach to especially some of the choral passages, and to the wild anguish of the final scene, remains unfulfilled.
Most impressive in this cast is Olga Borodina as Lyubasha, just leaving to the imagination what her Amneris at the Met must have been like this season, in (in a number of subtle ways) a similar enough Verdi opera. Impassioned, voluptuous in tone to full measure, and incisive with the words, she is about all that anyone could ask, and almost surpassing Irina Arkhipova on the 1970's Bolshoi Melodiya set. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is also good and sympathetic as Gryaznoy, but shows a litle effort at delivering the earthier and more venal aspects of the character. In the effort, he comes out sounding just a tad bit too earnest for his own good. Marina Shaguch is the strident Marfa, perfectly adequate in relaxed passages, of which there are few in this part. She only finally comes into her own in her final aria. She is heard to better effect in Kaschhey the Deathless, also released by Philips last month. Evgeny Akimov is the thin, slightly reedy sounding Lykov, adequate enough in arias but not matching tone in duet with Shaguch well. The remainder of the cast is simply adequate, with the exception of Lyubov Sokolova as Petrovna (minor role), who is very nicely distinctive from the rest. Nikolai Gassiev puts in a fine cameo appearance as the lovestruck chemist who with Lyubasha and to help fulfill her vindictive ends, lets her strike up a mephistophelian deal of sorts with him. Given it is Olga Borodina, I certainly would not mind.
Five stars for Borodina, three for most of the rest. Given that the price is right so much more often so many places, the contributions of both Borodina and Hvorostovsky, and the relative and mostly undeserving obscurity of the material, I bump this set up to four stars.