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Theatre / The Tsars Bride

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The Tsar’s Bride (Russian: Царская невеста, Tsarskaya nevesta) is an opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, first performed in 1899. It is based on a historical drama of the same name by Lev Mey. Although it’s frequently performed in the former Soviet Union, it’s little known outside it. Interestingly, another Ivan the Terrible-centered drama by Mey, The Maid of Pskov, had also been previously adapted to music by the same composer.


The plot is very loosely based on the circumstances surrounding Ivan the Terrible’s third marriage. Marfa Sobakina, a merchant’s daughter, is betrothed to her Victorious Childhood Friend Ivan Lykov. However, the wedding is delayed because the Tsar is looking for a new wife, and all highborn maidens must be presented before him.

Meanwhile, Grigory Gryaznoi, an oprichnik, has also fallen madly in love with Marfa and asks the royal physician Bomelius to make him a love potion. However, Gryaznoi’s jealous neglected mistress Lyubasha gets a poison from Bomelius and switches the two potions.

Marfa is chosen as the Tsar’s bride, but after Gryaznoi puts what he thinks is a love potion into her drink, she is taken ill. Gryaznoi frames Lykov for the poisoning and kills him. Hearing the news, Marfa slips into insanity and feverishly calls for Lykov. Gryaznoi, heartbroken, kills Lyubasha and gives himself up for torture and execution.


The opera contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original play, Bomelius is implied to have somewhat stronger feelings for Lyubasha, at one point offering her to move in with him, promising to treat her well. In the opera, it’s all omitted, and he doesn’t even pretend to really care about her.
  • Adult Fear: Marfa is separated from her childhood sweetheart right during their engagement feast, has to marry a man she is frightened of, and finally gets poisoned and dies a slow agonizing death for no fault of her own.
  • Ascended Extra: In The Maid of Pskov, Bomelius appears once in the final scene and has the grand total of one line.
  • Betty and Veronica: The whole main plot kicks off when Gryaznoi grows tired of the passionate Lyubasha and prefers the sweet and innocent Marfa.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Gryaznoi believes himself reformed by his love for Marfa. He doesn’t want to abduct her by force – he only wants to slip her a love potion and ruin her engagement with Lykov.
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  • Caught in the Rain: Bomelius tries to invite Lyubasha indoors on the pretext of bad weather. She’s having none of that. At first.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Lykov and Marfa. Had a high chance of ending happily, too.
  • Delirious Misidentification: In her madness, Marfa clings to Gryaznoi and sings what she thinks is an aria for a tender romantic scene, believing him to be Lykov.
  • Dramatic Irony: The quartet at Lykov and Marfa’s engagement party, where everyone seemingly heartily congratulates them. Lykov thinks Gryaznoi has helped them pour the drinks, Gryaznoi thinks he has given Marfa a love potion – and the viewers are aware it’s poison, in fact.
  • Easily Overheard Conversation: When Gryaznoi asks Bomelius for the love philtre, Lyubasha eavesdrops and learns for certain that Gryaznoi is over her.
  • False Friend: Lykov believes Gryaznoi to be his closest friend, actually asking him to be his best man on the wedding.
  • The Ghost: Ivan the Terrible (after being one of the central figures in The Maid of Pskov) appears onstage as a silent role at best.
  • Honorary Uncle: Malyuta Skuratov, one of the oprichniks, and Lyubasha refer to each other as “godfather” and “goddaughter”… because, as he puts it, he “baptized her kinfolk in blood” when the oprichniks plundered her town. He seems genuinely fond of her, though.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Lyubasha looks into the window of Marfa’s house and sighs with relief: the girl’s pretty but nothing unique, and Gryaznoi will quickly get over her. Then it’s revealed it was Marfa’s friend Dunyasha she saw.
    • From Lykov’s point of view (not for the audience): the moment when he learns Dunyasha will probably marry the Tsar so he and Marfa are free to proceed with their wedding.
  • I Have This Friend...: Gryaznoi asks about the love potion “on behalf of a friend”. Neither Bomelius nor Lyubasha is fooled.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Marfa and Ivan Lykov love each other, Gryaznoi loves Marfa, Ivan the Terrible chooses Marfa as his bride, Lyubasha loves Gryaznoi, and Bomelius wants Lyubasha.
  • Love-Obstructing Parents: In the beginning, Lyubasha sings a song of a girl whose mother forces her to reject her beloved and tries to marry her off to an old man. The girl dies at the wedding.
  • Love Potion: Discussed, but eventually never consumed.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The mad scene. Marfa happily sings of her love for Lykov and their upcoming wedding, Gryaznoi sings heart-wrenchingly of his remorse for what he has done to her, and everyone else is lamenting Marfa’s fate.
  • Karma Houdini: Bomelius has mixed both of the potions and forced Lyubasha to sleep with him in exchange for making the poisonous one; he gets no comeuppance in the end. Gryaznoi nearly kills him when he sees Marfa dying and believes the physician has given him the wrong potion, but as Lyubasha steps in to explain, the attention gets focused on her and Bomelius is forgotten.
    • Some productions avert this: for example, in the 1965 opera film, he is shown led away for trial too, and in the 2015 Belarus Opera production, Skuratov kills him.
  • Mistaken for Romance: Tsar Ivan is very interested in Dunyasha and talks to her for a long while. Everyone thinks he shall marry her and is completely dumbstruck when the Tsar announces Marfa as his choice. Real Life showed he picked Dunyasha as a bride for his son (the opera doesn’t mention it).
  • Murder the Hypotenuse:
    • Gryaznoi frames and stabs Lykov. At that moment, he still believes that he gave Marfa a love potion and she won’t care about Lykov anyway.
    • Lyubasha poisons Marfa, even though she realizes it will hardly bring Gryaznoi back to her.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Marfa is dying and has lost her grip on reality, it dawns on Gryaznoi that it’s primarily him who has destroyed her life.
  • Nothing Personal: Lyubasha’s musings when she is thinking of buying the poison for Marfa basically amount to that. She’s doing it not because she hates Marfa personally, but to get her revenge on Gryaznoi.
  • One Steve Limit: Downplayed; there are two Ivans and two Grigorys, but as Tsar Ivan barely appears and Grigory #2 is only known as Malyuta Skuratov, it’s hard to get confused.
  • Pet the Dog: Ivan the Terrible (a complex Tragic Villain in Mey’s plays) is very kind and friendly towards Dunyasha when he sees how frightened she is at the bride-choosing ceremony.
  • She's All Grown Up: Lykov and Marfa realized the romantic nature of their feelings when they met after several years of separation.
  • Shipper on Deck: Marfa has many troubles but having Love-Obstructing Parents isn’t one of them: Sobakin and his wife have shipped her with Lykov since she was a little girl.
  • Suicide by Cop: Lyubasha tells Gryaznoi how she engineered Marfa’s death to provoke him into killing her. Gryaznoi gives himself up to the oprichniks and cries he’ll beg for the worst tortures imagined.
  • Tenor Boy: The good-hearted and naive Lykov is a typical one.
  • Woman Scorned: Lyubasha doesn’t care that she causes two deaths and then gets killed herself. Since Gryaznoi has rejected her, there’s not much of a life for her anyway.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Lyubasha was abducted from her hometown by the oprichniks who slaughtered her kin. She found love with Gryaznoi, but he never truly loved her. The he decided to marry Marfa and cast off Lyubasha who has no family to protect her and, as an ex-mistress, can’t hope for respect. On top of it all, midway through the libretto she is coerced into sleeping with Bomelius, and that breaks what’s left of her dignity. No wonder the poor woman goes Ax-Crazy.
  • Yandere: Gryaznoi for Marfa and Lyubasha for Gryaznoi.

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