Boris Christoff / Alfredo Simonetto

Mikhail Ivanovitch Glinka: Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar)

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Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (aka, Ivan Susanin) (1836) was a first in many areas: the first real opera in the Russian language, the first Russian opera to be performed outside Russia, and the first to move into the international repertoire. Glinka wrote the opera soon after an extended stay in Italy, and while it is notable for the composer's deft incorporation of Russian folk traditions in the score, in many ways it has the sound of an Italian bel canto opera. That impression is heightened in this recording because it is sung in Italian, in a 1954 production with Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano della RAI, led by Alfredo Simonetto. It features Boris Christoff as the protagonist, one of his signature roles; the Act IV soliloquy is a terrific showpiece, and he sings it with fervor and a heroic, ringing tone. His deeply resonant bass is ideally suited to the part, although it is a little odd to hear him singing it in Italian. The supporting cast is first-rate; Virginia Zeani, Giuseppe Campora, and Anna Maria Rota sing with passion, and with a gorgeous bel canto warmth that tended to be missing from many Soviet opera recordings of the period. The orchestra and chorus, except for a very occasional slip-up, perform with precision and fiery urgency. The performance is significantly shorter than the standard version of the opera; there are cuts in many scenes, but most importantly the entire first scene of the fourth act is omitted. The libretto is not particularly well-structured or dramatic, and there's not a lot of action, so two hours actually seems plenty long. Purists will want a more complete version in Russian, but the quality of the vocal performances makes this a version that fans of the opera will also want to seek out. The sound is decidedly mediocre; it was evidently taken from an LP because there is some scratchiness and tape bleed-through. Once the ear adjusts to the standards, though, it is not unduly distracting. The second disc is filled out with excerpts in Russian, of Prince Igor, made in 1962 with the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring Christoff in both the roles of Prince Galitsky and Khan Konchak. There's considerably less bloom and power in Christoff's voice here, and he doesn't convey the passion of his earlier performance. The sound is more vibrant and present in these excerpts, but it's too loud, there's more ancillary noise, and the prompter is prominent enough throughout to seem like another character in the opera. There is also a brief, not very illuminating interview with Christoff.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
A Life for the Tsar (Ivan Susanin; Zhizn' za tsarya), opera, G. xii
1
8:50
2
5:34
3
4:40
4
2:14
5
12:33
6
3:38
7
1:01
8
1:54
9
2:45
10
2:53
11
5:22
12
2:08
13
7:10
14
10:44
15
3:08
16
1:50
17
1:42
blue highlight denotes track pick