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The Opera Quarterly 19.3 (2003) 583-586

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Ivan IV. Georges Bizet (ed. Williams)

Ivan IV: Ludovic Tézier La sentinelle: Richard Tronc
Marie: Inva Mula Le Tcherkesse: Mario Castagnetti
Igor: Julian Gavin Le héraut: Pascal Aubert
Temrouk: Paul Gay Orchestre National de France
Yorloff : Alexandre Vassiliev Choeur de Radio France
Le jeune Bulgare: Henriette Bonde-Hansen Michael Schønwandt,conductor
L'officier: Franck Bard Naïve (distributed by Naxos of America) v 4940
Olga: Sonia Nighoghossian (2 CDs) [End Page 583]

Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Verdi—not Georges Bizet—spring to mind at the mention of grand opéra. But the composer of Les pêcheurs de perles and Carmen also wrote Ivan IV, a grand opéra of Meyerbeerian scale and sweep. Ivan IV depicts the sixteenth-century clash of Muslim and Christian cultures in Russia, amid a geographical setting ranging from the Caucasus to the Kremlin. The tsar becomes infatuated with the daughter of a Muslim ruler. After Marie is abducted by the Russians, her father and brother vow vengeance. Ivan marries Marie, but his henchman, furious that his own daughter has been passed over, conspires to topple the tsar from his throne. Beset by assassins and revolt, Ivan collapses in an epileptic fit but recovers in time to send his henchman to the gallows and reclaim his bride and throne.

The complicated genesis of Bizet's grand opéra is sketched by David D'Hermy in the booklet that accompanies the Naïve release. 1 In 1856 the director of the Opéra offered Charles Gounod a libretto of Ivan le terrible by François-Hippolyte Leroy and Henri Trianon. Gounod immediately set to work on the score, which was ready for production in 1858. But a new director repeatedly postponed the premiere until the composer abandoned the project (recycling much of the music into Faust, La reine de Saba, and Mireille). In 1862 Bizet inherited the libretto and, believing Léon Carvalho would produce it for the Théâtre-Lyrique, began working on it, temporarily interrupting its composition in 1863 to write Les pêcheurs de perles. When Ivan still hadn't been accepted by 1865, Bizet withdrew the score from the Lyrique and submitted it to the Opéra, where it was also ignored. Like Gounod, Bizet used some of the music for other operas, while Ivan remained forgotten until an autograph score was presented to the Paris Conservatoire after the death of the widow of Bizet's only legitimate son. The score contained no title page or list of characters and lacked a complete orchestration for the fifth act. During World War II, the Germans made a microfilm of Bizet's manuscript, and the opera was performed for the first time in Germany in 1946 as Ivan le terrible. Schott arranged for a German translation and published the score. Then Bizet's French publisher, Choudens, asked composer/conductor Henri Busser to devise another performing edition, which was premiered in 1951 in Bordeaux. Choudens changed the title to Ivan IV to distinguish Bizet's opera from Raoul Gunsbourg's Ivan le terrible (produced in Brussels in 1910). Two decades after Busser's version was performed, English conductor Howard Williams devised a new performing edition that was aired by the BBC in 1975 and performed in concert for the first time in London in 1987. The BBC broadcast, led by Bryden Thomas and sung by Jeanette Scovotti, John Noble, and John Brecknock, was issued on LP (MRF 166). Ivan IV finally reached Paris in a concert presentation at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 28 March 2002. That performance, led by Michael Schønwandt, has now been issued by Naïve.

Ivan IV is no slumbering masterpiece awaiting discovery, but its ambitious score does contain musical riches in every act. Bizet repeatedly reveals his [End Page 584] unique musico-dramatic gifts in lyrical arias that take melodic flight and in sturdy ensembles that build to large-scale climaxes. The first act boasts a delectable duet for Marie and the young Bulgarian (a pants part). In the second...


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