RIMSKY-KORSAKOV The Tale of Tsar Saltan
I well remember this production of The Tale of Tsar Saltan. In 2008, for the centenary of Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, the Mariinsky Opera brought the opera to Sadler’s Wells under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev. It’s as traditional a staging as is possible to imagine, Vladimir Firer’s designs based on Ivan Bilibin’s 1937 production, itself based on Bilibin’s 1905 picture book, which was a Russian classic of its time. Costumes are as bright as poster paint, while the set mostly comprises painted flats and cut-out props, giving the whole thing a two-dimensional storybook feel. This isn’t at all inappropriate for Rimsky’s folk-tale opera, which is packed with terrific music, many of the interludes familiar from the orchestral suite.
The opera was inspired by Pushkin’s skazka about a tsar who is deceived into thinking his wife has borne him a monster. Both mother and son are encased in a barrel which is then thrown into the sea. The Tsaritsa and her son Guidon – miraculously now a fully grown man – wash up on the island of Buyan, where he promptly saves a swan from a kite. The swan vows to repay his kindness. Guidon is proclaimed a prince, but wishes to return to Saltan’s kingdom. The swan turns him into a bumble-bee – hence the famous ‘Flight’ – and he stings his plotting aunts in revenge. The swan turns into the beautiful princess of Guidon’s dreams and Saltan eventually sails to Buyan where he is reunited with his beloved wife and everyone is forgiven. It’s fairy-tale stuff best taken at face value rather than subjected to Regietheater directorial Konzept, even if the stilted tableaux, hammy acting and herding of the chorus are out of the operatic ark.
Valery Gergiev has done more than any conductor to promote Rimsky’s operas and he applies his magic touch to Saltan’s glittering score, his Mariinsky band on top form. He has a fine cast, led by the late Edward Tsanga, a promising bass-baritone who died tragically young last January, aged just 37. His Saltan is firm-voiced and authoritative. Soprano Irina Churilova impresses as Militrisa, the tsaritsa, while Mikhail Vekua lends his stentorian tenor to the role of Guidon. The stellar performance, however, comes from Albina Shagimuratova, radiant of voice as the Swan-Princess, even if she is shrouded in white ostrich feathers like something you’d find in a 1920s cabaret.
Picture and sound quality are excellent, the Mariinsky offering both Blu-ray and DVD for the price of one. With these filmed performances supplementing the five operas he recorded on disc (for Philips), Gergiev is building an impressive Rimsky discography. Dare we hope for the charming, tuneful Christmas Eve one day or the fantastical Mlada?