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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1872-1949)
The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) [150.00]
Edward Tsanga (bass: Tsar Saltan), Irina Churilova (soprano: Militrisa), Varvara Solovyova (mezzo-soprano: Tkachikha), Elena Vitman (contralto: Barbarikha), Tatiana Kravtsova (soprano: Povarikha), Mikhail Vekua (tenor: Guidon), Albina Shagimuratova (soprano: Swan Princess), Vasily Gorshkov (tenor: Old man), Andrei Spekhov (baritone: Messenger), Denis Begansky (bass: Court jester), Vitaly Dudkin, Alexander Gerasimov and Timur Abdikeyev (tenor, baritone and bass: Sea merchants), Mariinsky Chorus and Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 2015
MARIINSKY MAR0597 Blu-Ray/DVD [150 mins]

Some four years ago I reviewed for this site a reissue of the 1959 Melodiya recording of this Rimsky-Korsakov opera, noting that it remained the sole representation of the work in the current catalogues and lamenting the abysmal standard of presentation where the plot was reduced to a brief synopsis full of unintentionally comic mistranslations and erratic grammar. I suggested then that release could best be regarded as a stop-gap until something better came along; and since that reissue has also now seemingly succumbed to the deletions axe, this appearance of a recording from the Mariinsky must earn an automatic recommendation. But alas it is not the ideal for which we might have hoped.

Let us take the matter of the staging first. Now Pushkin’s play, on which the opera is based, has no pretentions to be a dramatic masterpiece, and that is just as well because it most certainly is not. Its closest parallels lie with the English pantomime tradition, boasting a plot which takes fantastic elements from a fairy story, combines them with jealous ugly sisters and characters who grow up seemingly overnight, and sprinkles the whole confection with a healthy dollop of stage magical effects. None of the characters have much in the way of any depth, none of them spark any sympathy, and when they are sad it is with sort of melancholy which falls away at the slightest provocation. And that is it; there is nothing that any producer could really do with it which would not jar horribly with Rimsky-Korsakov’s light-hearted treatment of the story.

Fortunately, that is just what Alexander Petrov and his production team do here, sending up the idiom with just the right degree of affection. But, unfortunately, the result does not gel. The magical effects – realised with a combination of cartoon animation, puppetry and balletic rituals which uncomfortably seem to merge would-be Busby Berkeley routines with ‘primitive’ gestures out of the Rite of Spring – are all too often simply done on the cheap. The transformation of the Swan Princess into a human is prosaically realised with an on-stage costume change, concealed from the view of the audience by dancers sporting white feathers. The squirrel with the golden nuts is a clumsy animatronic device which hardly moves. The dancers, although costumed to match the chorus in their imitations of Russian dolls, seem to have been subjected to the ministrations of a completely different team of make-up artists. The cartoons all too often anticipate what we are to see on the stage, making the latter events anti-climactic. And the bumble-bee, a puppet on a string indeed, is simply unbelievable; the marionette operators need to see what can be done by the teams who produced The Lion King or Warhorse, who can make an audience suspend their sense of disbelief in a manner which the Mariinsky artists do not begin to approach.

But in the end it is all harmless fun, even when one is wistfully imagining how it could have been bettered; and Rimsky-Korsakov’s music adds both drama and excitement to the supernatural incidents of the story, which he takes musically very seriously indeed. The splendour of Guidon’s coronation as Tsar in Act Three anticipates Rimsky’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and even though the music as a whole does not rise to the later score – which is a masterpiece of an order to which Tsar Saltan does not begin to aspire – there is a great deal to enjoy here, and not just in the orchestral music with which audiences may be familiar through its inclusion in the orchestral suite. Rimsky’s thorough-going use of the leitmotif technique is distinguished by his ability to strike out highly individual themes, and it is extraordinary to realise in context that the trumpet fanfares which open each scene are all in one way or another variations on the hopping counterpoint with which we are familiar as the bumble-bee takes flight. (I do not propose to try to explain the plot, or where a bumble-bee fits into it; life is too short, and the results would not be enlightening or illuminating.) The arias have a lyrical warmth, too, which is lacking in other more satirical Rimsky scores such as The Golden Cockerel; but they do all seem to come from much of the same mould, with thinly scored accompaniments often featuring solo strings, and only the Swan Princess seems to be individually characterised with her coloratura embellishments which really do point forward to the ethereal role of the Queen in The Golden Cockerel. The choral writing, as one would expect with Rimsky, is glorious; the comic episodes betray the influence of Mussorgsky without the latter’s sense of earthiness. And the harmony and orchestration are of course stupendous; the crashing changes of key at the end of Act One surely show the influence of the final chord shifts in Act Two of Verdi’s Otello.
Gergiev, his orchestra and chorus, make the most of the many opportunities with which they are presented. Unhappily the solo vocal contributions are a rather mixed bunch. After a slightly tentative start, Irina Churilova rises to the challenge of the unfortunate Tsarita Militrisa; but in the later stages of the opera she is upstaged by the Swan Princess of Albina Shagimuratova who not only makes musical sense of the elaborate vocal line but then expands into a soaring lyricism as she changes into human form. As Tsar Saltan himself Edward Tsanga seems rather young of voice, perhaps not the deep bass that one might have imagined and expected; but his tuning is firm and true, and he makes a good impression. As the prince Mikhail Vekua, who the end titles here inform us was making his company debut with the Mariinsky, is a decidedly more mixed blessing. He has one of those metallic Russian tenors that can produce plenty of heft and volume – one can imagine that he would be a superbly involving Hermann in The Queen of Spades – but he totally lacks the honeyed lyricism that the part surely demands, and towards the end he is comprehensively sung off the stage by Shagimuratova as his now-human princess. And where once the Kirov would have shown real strength in the casting of the many small roles in any Rimsky-Korsakov operas, here the comprimarios are really a pretty unimpressive bunch with the exception of Vasily Gorshkov as the old man who demonstrates the sort of involvement that one seeks in vain elsewhere (the role was the one conspicuously weak link at the Bolshoi in the old Melodiya set). Worst of all are the two ‘ugly sisters’ and the ‘wicked stepmother’ who form a trio of villainous conspirators throughout, demonstrating the sort of Slavonic wobbles and heavy vibrato that one had hopefully imagined was now more or less extinct. Indeed, the old Bolshoi cast in 1959 had more firmly delineated singing than this.

More enthusiastic characterisation from the singers might perhaps have helped. Vekua as Guidon is not helped to appear romantic by costuming and make-up that make him resemble the cynical and uncharismatic Henry VII of England in one of his more calculating moods; and when he makes a gesture of sympathy to his father in the final scene, it is not helped that Tsanga seems not to take the slightest notice of it. Nor need the Tsarita of Churilova have appeared such a helpless ninny as here; her heroic self-sacrifice at the end of Act One appears ineffectual, and when at the end she joins in a trio with her son and his new bride, the three characters hardly seem to take any notice of each other, simply lining up along the footlights to declaim their feelings to the audience. The audience at the end reserve their loudest cheer for Gergiev, and their instincts are probably right. If this is not the ideal performance of an almost totally neglected opera for which I was perhaps forlornly hoping, it still comes a good deal closer than the old Melodiya set in showing the old magician Rimsky at work and making a marvellously enjoyable Fabergé jewel out of the most unpromising material.

There are one or two moments when the singers seem to go ‘off-mike’, but nothing too serious; and the balance between stage and orchestra is well judged. The discs come in two formats, DVD and Blu-Ray, which might seem extravagant (either one or the other would have seemed adequate); but nevertheless the lovers of Rimsky-Korsakov operas, who happily seem to be a growing band, will certainly wish to have a recording which brings the listener closer to the work than any rival. The booklet material, in four languages, is pretty basic – a biography of Gergiev and a synopsis of the plot (which may show a better command of the English language than the Melodiya booklet, but is hardly more detailed). And it might have been nice to have some explanation from the production team about the stage designs, which we are informed are based on sketches by Ivan Bilibin (1872-1942); Bilibin, who went into exile after the Revolution, did design the sets for Rimsky’s last opera The Golden Cockerel (although the booket does not mention this), as well as illustrations for Russian folk tales at the turn of the century.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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