Libretto: François-Hippolyte Leroy & Henri Trianon
The libretto was originally intended for Charles Gounod, and for the Paris Opéra. When the Opéra failed to stage Gounod’s opera, the libretto was offered to Bizet. Bizet’s version was never staged in his lifetime. The first performances were an abridged version at Mühringen Castle, Tübingen; and at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, 12 October 1951.
Act I: In the Caucasus.
Local women gather water from a mountain spring. Marie, daughter of the chieftain Temrouk, helps a lost Bulgarian youth find his way.
Unfortunately for her, his master is Ivan the Terrible, incognito. He gives her a flower – and then his soldiers invade, and kidnap her. Her brother, Igor, is chosen by lot to avenge her.
Act II: A banquet at the Kremlin.
Ivan holds a feast – and amuses himself by holding a mass execution simultaneously. His guests prefer his other ideas of entertainment: a Bulgarian song (“fit only for women!”)
and a Cossack song.
Ivan orders the most beautiful girls to be brought before him, so he can choose his wife. His adviser, Yorloff, thinks his daughter will be chosen – but the Czar’s eye falls on Marie. She refuses, and appeals to the Czar’s sister, Olga, for protection.
Act III: The courtyard in the Kremlin.
The Czar and Marie are getting married. Temrouk and Igor, both come to Moscow, plot with Yorloff to cut the wedding night short. Igor will kill the Czar and Czarina – unaware that she’s his sister.
Act IV: A room outside the wedding chamber.
Marie realizes that she’s fallen in love with Ivan, the oppressor of her country.
Yorloff, though, makes Ivan think that she might be a new Judith, who seduced and then killed Holofernes, her people’s conqueror.
Igor steals into the room, and tries to persuade Marie to flee with him after he’s killed the Czar. She refuses – she loves her husband.
Ivan and Yorloff discover the two; Ivan orders their execution, and then collapses.
Yorloff has declared himself Regent, and seized the throne. Ivan escapes from his confinement, and, with Temrouk, now his friend, confronts Yorloff. The usurper is led off to be executed, and all praise the Czar and Czarina.
For an opera called Ivan IV, there’s little focus on the Tsar himself. He appears briefly in Act I, and not at all in Act III. It’s a far cry from Eisenstein’s magnificent Ivan Grozny, where the Czar is very much the protagonist. Eisenstein tells how the young Czar dominates Russia, and crushes his political enemies (including his appalling aunt, Efrosinia), and, after the death of his wife, slips into paranoia and cruelty.
Bizet’s librettists make up most of their Russian history. It’s less historical fiction than fantasy – a pity, because a more interesting story could be told about the real Maria Temyrukovna: an ambitious, ruthless woman who loved watching executions, and who, according to legend, inspired the oprichniki, Ivan’s murderous political police.
Her father, the Prince of Karbada, welcomed the marriage, which he thought would bring economic benefits. She was an outsider in the Muscovite court, and deeply unpopular. She was a cruel stepmother. Ivan himself came to regret marrying her – but when she died, suspected she was poisoned, and executed several nobles. (Another legend suggests that he poisoned her.)
There’s a lot of material here for a good opera, at once a political play and an intimate drama, with a strong role for a soprano, who dies at the end. Instead, Marie is the stock standard virtuous heroine of so many operas – one who falls in love with Ivan, but who, weirdly, never shares an intimate duet with him. The Yorloff business, meanwhile, seems to be pure hooey.
Bizet’s score has few defenders, except for Hugh Macdonald (Bizet, 2014), who believes
it contains more fine music than any of Bizet’s own operas except Carmen. Yet it is today an operatic refuse, left behind by the march of history.
The best pieces are very good indeed, and deserve better than to be thrown out on the rubbish dump. There’s no “Au fond du temple saint”, true, but there’s some exquisite writing for the female voice (the women’s choruses in Acts I, II and IV; the young Bulgar’s aria in Act II; Marie’s grand aria in Act IV); the imaginative idea of interrupting the revelry in Act II with a drumbeat; the rousing Cossack song; and a good duet for Igor and Marie in Act III.
Bizet’s music throughout is carefully composed, and often ingeniously orchestrated. (All except Act V, which he sketched, but left unfinished. It was completed after his death.)
It is, though, a patchy, often conventional, score. Those good bits sit side by side with uninspired numbers (the long father/son duet in Act III). Donizetti and Wagner rub shoulders; Act I ends with a quotation from Lohengrin, while duets start or finish as jaunty bel canto. The Act II finale – complete with organ music and brandished crucifix – is pure Gounod, as is the waltzing chorus that opens Act III.
Nor is there much in the way of local color. It doesn’t feel Russian in the same way that Carmen feels “Spanish” (gypsy dances, castanets, maracas, bullfighters, and boleros), or Djamileh feels “Arab”.
Still, Bizet fans will enjoy Ivan; it may not be terrific, but it’s far from Terrible.
Ludovic Tézier (Ivan), Inva Mula (Marie), Julian Gavin (Igor), Paul Gay (Temrouk), and Alexandre Vassiliev (Yorloff), with the Choeur and Orchestre National de France, conducted by Michael Schønwandt, 2002.
- Hugh Macdonald, Bizet, Oxford University Press, 2014
- “Ivan IV”, Bizet Catalogue
- Patrick Foley, “The Marriage of Ivan IV and Maria Temryukovna”, Russia’s Periphery
- “Ivan IV of Russia”, Mad Monarchs
- Thomas Swan, “The 8 Wives of Ivan the Terrible”, Owlcation
- “Ivan the Terrible and his wives”, Russian Personalities