Bizet's most ambitious opera was a hapless affair, set to a libretto first accepted by Charles Gounod on commission from the Paris Opéra, with plans for a production scheduled to go into rehearsals in November 1856. Repeated delays led to abandonment, and in 1863 Gounod relinquished rights to the text written by Francois Hippolyte Leroy and Henri Trianon, utilizing some music from the opera in other works (Faust and Mireille, for example).
Following the 1863 premiere of Les Pêcheurs de Perles at the Théâtre-Lyrique, Bizet reported that he had been asked by that theater's director, Léon Carvahlo, to provide a five-act opera on the subject of Ivan the Terrible. After a notice in Le Figaro in March 1864 that Ivan IV would follow Mireille (premiered March 19, 1864) at the Lyrique, periodic announcements appeared regarding the imminent appearance of the opera. By late summer of 1865, Bizet reported that the score was in the hands of copyists and that production was promised for January or February 1865. By December of that year, though, it was clear to Bizet that Carvahlo did not intend to produce the opera after all; he withdrew the score and submitted it instead to the Opéra.
That same month, officials there maintained that the house was fully committed and that the composer would do well to keep his efforts fixed on the Lyrique, particularly as the subject was considered better suited to that theater. Only a few additional passing references from Bizet are to be found, and for a long time the score was considered lost or burned. But in 1929 an autograph manuscript was forwarded to the Paris Conservatoire by the second husband of the composer's widow, and four years later the institution unearthed it. The score was short its title page and listing of characters, and the fifth act orchestration was unfinished.
After World War II, the publishing house of Choudens obtained the rights and engaged Henri Busser to complete the score. Busser did more than that: he organized a performing edition containing many alterations and cuts. Considering that Bizet surely would not have sent an incomplete score to either the Lyrique or the Opéra, what surfaced in 1929 may have been an earlier incarnation of the work, a score predating the one actually submitted for consideration. His finished work may, indeed, have been destroyed (Bizet might have been given clearance by his mentor Gounod before the official forfeiting of libretto rights). In any event, although an overall failure, Ivan IV exhibits some strong moments, especially in its lyric passages.
Weaknesses include the composer's concentrating too often on subsidiary characters (such as the young Bulgarian) who contribute little to the progression of the plot. As the libretto was written for the Opéra, it was elaborate and grand, redolent of Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
A 1975 recording, led by conductor Bryden Thomson, used a completion of the full 1929 score.