Chelsea Opera Group presents the English premiere of Oprichnik by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on March 11th at 7pm at Cadogan Hall, SW1X 9DG. Please BOOK TICKETS here. This is a rare opportunity to hear an exciting work by one of the world’s greatest composers. Conducted by James Ham, the cast includes Yvonne Howard, Stephen Richardson, Brian Smith Walters and Seljan Nasibli.

James Ham, Conductor

Oprichnik (The Guardsman) is an early, infrequently performed opera by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Written in the early 1870s, it was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 24 April 1874.  Despite the composer’s own reservations, the first production of Oprichnik in St Petersburg was a significant triumph.

With only Eugene Onegin and (to a lesser extent) The Queen of Spades consistently holding their places in the Western operatic repertoire, it can be difficult for audiences in the UK, US or Europe to get a sense of just how much opera mattered to Tchaikovsky. The six symphonies and three ballets are better remembered, obscuring the fact that there are nine surviving operas, alongside two early, discarded efforts, spanning the full duration of his active career as a composer. There were also extensive references to opera as part of his journalism, critical writings and letters, where he discussed his own latest productions or his thoughts about operas by other composers. Collectively, these writings meant that Tchaikovsky devoted extensive time, attention, and effort to thinking about what opera should look like.

His work in this domain centred on questions of style and nationality, topics that were primary concerns for his contemporaries too. Certainly there was no doubt in Tchaikovsky’s mind that Russia needed operas that it could call its own, and in the 1860s and 70s he railed against the poor existing provision for it on numerous occasions. However, there was no obvious answer to what a Russian opera should look and sound like, at least from the perspective of a composer working in the second half of the nineteenth century. Language alone would not do the job of distinguishing it from its much better-established Italian or French national competitors; other elements of the production had to contribute as well, including the music, sets and costumes. But important questions remained: for example, could the traditional structures of opera (aria, recitative, ensembles, choruses, etc.) be used in a Russian manner? Or should they be discarded, and if so, what should replace them? And how far should one go in attempting to incorporate ‘traditional’ elements from Russian musical culture, such as idioms or melodies from the religious or folk domains, when those elements were often incompatible with an operatic style? No definitive answers could ever have been given to such questions, and Tchaikovsky’s own approach fluctuated over the course of his output, to say nothing of the different conclusions his colleagues and competitors came to in their operas from the same period. Each new work could only be an experiment in this respect, all of them contributing to a musical conversation that would continue long into the twentieth century.

Yvonne Howard, Stephen Richardson, Seljan Nasibli, Brian Smith Walters (photo by A P Wilding)

The nature of the story very much played its part in this endeavour. Tchaikovsky based his own libretto for Oprichnik on the historical drama by Ivan Lazhechnikov of the same title. The play had been written in 1843 but was subject to a state ban, due to its negative portrayal of the ruler, until its eventual publication in 1867. It concerns the period in the late sixteenth century when Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) attempted to take total control over the Russian state, where until then power had been shared with the Boyar nobility. Ivan relocated his court to a separate, self-contained territory and employed a personal corps of guardsmen loyal only to him, who proceeded to persecute anyone who might threaten Ivan’s position in exchange for personal privileges. Initially the Oprichniks (as they became known) targeted the nobility, but subsequently began exploiting their power to take control of the land and terrorise the peasantry as well, all while adopting manners and customs associated with Orthodox Christianity, in keeping with Ivan’s preferences. It is no wonder that state censors had initially had objections to the play, but by the time of the opera it seems to have become less of a concern. From a musical perspective the rural settings and the sacred style of the Oprichniks made excellent justifications for bringing in actual folk songs (especially for the dances) and Orthodox-style melodies, the kind of material that would make an opera undeniably Russian.

Rehearsal at Cadogan Hall. Photo credit: Matthew Johnson

Oprichnik is the first work to survive Tchaikovsky’s harsh treatment of his earlier operas. He largely destroyed the full scores of both Voyevoda and Undina, though he used some of their music in subsequent compositions and his unhappiness with the composition of Oprichnik began very early on. His initial work on it through 1870 had progressed slowly, dogged by a feeling that the subject did not move him, although it was good for an opera. Things picked up enough over the course of 1871 for the composition and orchestration to be complete by early 1872 (interrupted by some travel), and at this peak moment of enthusiasm he began actively pushing for opportunities to have it performed, seeing it through several rounds with the state censors, and preparing a vocal arrangement for piano that Bessel would publish in advance of the performances. However as soon as rehearsals began, he quickly lost faith in what he had written, and by the time of the premiere in April 1874 he was even dissuading some of his contacts from attending. A predictably scathing review of the premiere by César Cui, a consistent critic of Tchaikovsky’s music, didn’t help, for all that it was matched by a positive review from Herman Laroche. Indeed the demonstrable public success of the work, with fourteen performances in St Petersburg as well as productions in Odessa, Kiev, and Moscow, a prize from the Russian Musical Society, and a planned revival in 1879 (cancelled in the end due to a flare up of state censorship), did nothing to alter Tchaikovsky’s sense that it was a ‘failed’ work, only useful for the lessons it would teach him for future operas.

In the end posterity would agree, and performances are very rare outside Russia (and even there not as frequently as other Tchaikovsky works), to the extent that tonight’s performance almost certainly represents the English premiere for the work, following the UK premiere given by Scottish Opera in 1992. Nonetheless, those who have taken the trouble to engage with Oprichnik over the years have generally felt that it already represented a substantial improvement on his previous two operas. Excerpts of the ballet music remained popular in concert all the way through the remaining decades of the 19th century, and Natalya’s deeply sympathetic arias are clear prototypes for Tchaikovsky’s characterisation of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin (1879). The striking and moving moments are worth hearing, even if the dramatic difficulties surrounding them mean that it will only be heard every now and then.


The opera is a romantic tragedy set in 16th century Moscow during the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible and his feared bodyguards, the Oprichniks. The title refers to Andrey Morozov who joins the Oprichniks to obtain justice from the Tsar for the wrongs committed by Prince Zhemchuzhnïy who killed Andrey’s father, leaving him and his mother, Boyarïnya Morozova living in poverty.

Andrey is secretly in love with Zhemchuzhnïy’s daughter Natalya, whom her father has promised to the elderly boyar Molchan Mitkov – much to her dismay.  Andrey succeeds in driving off Zhemchuzhnïy, but when Andrey’s mother learns that he has taken the blood oath of the Oprichniks, she disowns him, laying a deathly curse on his head.

Natalya and Andrey marry and are happy together – until Andrey is called upon to fulfil his oath by submitting to the Tsar’s demand for a private visit from his new bride.  Andrey objects and is executed for his disloyalty.  Morozova is forced to watch the execution and falls dead.  Her curse is fulfilled.

Bruno Bower will give a pre-performance talk for ticket holders at 5.45pm


  • Boyarïnya Morozova: Yvonne Howard
  • Prince Zhemchuzhnïy:Stephen Richardson
  • Natalya, his daughter: Seljan Nasibli
  • Andrey Morozov: Brian Smith walters
  • Molchan Mitkov: Aidan Smith
  • Basmanov, a young oprichnik: Emma Stannard
  • Prince Vyazminsky: Nicholas Lester
  • Zakharyevna: Elinor Rolfe Johnson

For more information about Chelsea Opera Group, please click here or contact them via email.