Dmitri Tcherniakov’s premiere staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride at the Berlin Staatsoper is a triumph on every possible level. The masterful Russian director serves up a sleek and clever production whose point of entry is the curious detail that the titular tsar, Ivan the Terrible, doesn’t even make a single appearance during the work’s four acts. Accordingly, the tsar here is a total simulacrum: an ideal leader that is a composite image built from the facial features of Russian leaders including Peter the Great, Trotsky, Stalin and Yeltsin. The creation of this imaginary monarch plays out during the overture as a witty internet chat explaining the conspiracy followed by a flurry of high-tech editing wizardry projected on the screen-like curtain.
For much of the evening, the stage is dominated by a special effects studio and editing suite. Choristers in historical garb pace in front of a green screen, which transforms to a tacky and cartoonish medieval Moscow on the overhead monitors. For the most part, however, this is a modern-dress production and characters fluidly move between the various rooms of the rotating set, which also includes an executive lounge for the oprichnik Gryaznoi, where the opera’s bookending acts take place. The sparse living room of the Sobakin’s suburban home, used for the middle acts, sets a contrasting tone with its large windows opening out to the audience, floral wallpaper and flat screen television that broadcast the tacky demo-reel of the fake tsar striking all sorts of heroic poses. And in the third act, the white exterior of the Sobakin residence becomes a screen for a virtual beauty pageant resembling something one might find on a website for mail-order Russian brides.
In all, Tcherniakov’s production easily ranks among the company’s most successful outings during its extended exile at the Schiller Theater, its home since 2010. See it if you can!