Mariinsky Opera – Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan

The Tale of Tsar Saltan [Sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Tsar Saltan – Alexei Tannovitsky
Tsaritsa Militrisa – Victoria Vastrebova
Tsarevich Gvidon – Daniil Shtoda
The Swan-Princess – Lyudmila Dudinova
Babarikha – Nadezhda Vasilieva
Povarikha – Tatiana Kravtsova
Tkachikha – Natahia Evstafieva
The Jester – Eduard Tsanga
The Grandfather – Vassily Gorshkov
The Messenger – Andrei Spekhov
1st Shipmaster – Vladimir Zhivopistsev
2nd Shipmaster – Alexander Gerasimov
3rd Shipmaster – Mikhail Kolelishvili

Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Opera
Tugan Sokhiev

Alexander Petrov – Stage Director
Vladimir Firer – Set Designs
Vladimir Lukasevich – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 17 October, 2008
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Photograph: Natasha RazinaAnybody who thinks that the title of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Invisible City of Kitezh” bears a long title in its full wording should try to remember “The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his son the renowned and mighty hero Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and the beautiful Swan-Princess”. This work is a rarity in Britain, where its initial performance was given at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 11 October 1933. Now, 75 years later, it is back. Even on record it is neglected: it was not included in the Kirov/Mariinsky series of Russian operas in those blue boxes from Philips. The BBC should have been on hand to record it, for it has not been broadcast for years.

The opera is a fantasy, based on a poem by Pushkin. Tsar Saltan, while away at war, has received an anonymous letter from his malicious sisters-in-law and Babarikha (variously referred to in synopses as counsellor, duenna or matchmaker-crone), which tells him that the Tsaritsa has given birth to a monster. Without verifying it, he orders his wife and child to be placed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. They arrive on the island of Buyan, where the son, Gvidon, now a young man, kills a kite (a metamorphosed wicked magician) that is attacking a swan (in reality a princess), who rewards him by raising a city (Ledenets), whose inhabitants elect Gvidon as their ruler.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Photograph: Natasha RazinaThe young prince wishes to avenge his mother, and the Swan-Princess turns him into a bee, in which guise he flies back to his homeland. (Many who have never heard the opera will know ‘The Flight of the Bumble-bee’.) He causes commotion with his stings. From the three Shipmasters, the Tsar receives news of Ledenets and decides to visit, not knowing that his wife and son live there. His visit results, of course, in a happy ending.

Alexander Petrov’s production dates only from 2005 but has the feel of something much older. It is a mass of colour, both of clothes and background, and is stylised, with dance and mime. Am I coining a phrase if I describe it as containing gestures and movements which could be termed, with double meaning, silent-picturesque? Many of the designs, such as those which are shown during orchestral passages, are based on drawings by I. Bilibin: very attractive.

Tugan Sokhiev led his players through Rimsky’s colourful orchestration with surety, be it in the dreamy, shimmering prelude to Act Four or the sturdy, majestic music preceding the Tsar’s arrival in Ledenets, for the playing of which the audience burst into loud applause, rightly so. All the orchestral pieces received their full measure in the lush playing.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Photograph: Natasha RazinaIn three roles – Gvidon, Militrisa and the Swan-Princess – double-casting is used, with different soloists for the second performance. On this first night, Gvidon was sung by Daniil Shtoda, who has appeared a number of times in London. His is not the largest voice imaginable but has a Russian sweetness tinged with melancholy, without making as much impact as I should have liked. In fact, he made less of an impact as the amusingly lively Grandfather, whose weightier tones came through the orchestra more strongly. Shtoda is an accomplished singer, however, and his fresh sound accorded well with his role.

The two leading sopranos were Victoria Yastrebova as Militrisa and Lyudmila Dudinova as the Swan-Princess. The former’s lowest notes, soft-grained, did not always carry clearly when she sang softly, but she gave a gentle Tsaritsa and her tone did not lose quality under pressure. She presented a dignified figure throughout. Dudinova’s sound was ‘straighter’, with little vibrato, which the lady sitting next to me thought rather shrill. I understood why, although it struck me far more pleasantly: there was certainly none of the Russian wobble. Afterwards, a friend of mine, another lady, expressed a view similar to that of my neighbour.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Photograph: Natasha RazinaWhat wobbling there was came from the three conspirators, especially from Nadezhda Vasilieva as Babarikha. Her tone was unsteady and somewhat unfocused; nevertheless she did well histrionically in the stylised manner of the production, which made Babarikha and the two sisters akin to comic villains, in the manner of Clorinda and Tisbe in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”. Tatiana Kravtsova and Natalia Evstafieva were also amusing as the horrible sisters, less pleasing vocally than interpretatively.

Despite his being the first name in the opera’s title, Tsar Saltan’s is not the largest role. Only in the fourth and final act does he have much to sing, and Alexei Tannovitsky’s warm, euphonious bass fell appealingly on the ear. The male contingent in smaller parts did well, without exception. Eduard Tsanga’s lighter bass was free from over-the-top distortion of the Jester’s contributions. The three Shipmasters (tenor, baritone and bass) were sung by a vocally string trio, and Andrei Spekhov gave a strongly sung cameo as the drunken messenger. Tsanga, Spekhov and Gorshkov were expected to move nimbly too and did so.

This tale, of Tsar Saltan and the others, is truly fantastic. As one of the characters says, “Untruth exists in fairy-tales more than corn in the fields.”

There are but three or so Rimsky-Korsakov operas for which I do not have a libretto (not score). Does anybody know where I can find one of “Tsar Saltan”?

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