Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Mariinsky Opera @ Sadler’s Wells, London

17 and 18 October 2008

Following The Mariinsky Ballet’s début at Sadler’s Wells last week, The Mariinsky Opera’s visit with Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan did, if nothing else, provide something that was intrinsically Russian in every way. Presented here with bright sets and costumes and traditional Russian dancing, it seemed stylistically worlds away from the average English production of, say, Boris Godunov.

The opera itself, with libretto by Vladimir Ivanonich Belsky, is based on a Russian folktale set to verse by Pushkin. If, however, the production captured the Russian approach to fusing musical, visual and storytelling elements, the overall standard of each facet was not as strong as it could have been.

Much can be forgiven on the grounds that this was a travelling production. So even if the flimsy sets would not have been tolerated at Covent Garden, they still held their own interest. The simple hut in Act One was effectively decorated with traditional peasant motifs, whilst the ‘cardboard cut-out’ turrets of the Tsar’s palace were in keeping with the notion of a child’s fairytale. Good use was also made of screen animations during scene changes, which showed the Tsar’s army galloping into battle, a barrel tossing about in the sea, and a bee (from The Flight of the Bumblebee) flying through the air. It was more disappointing, however, to witness a cast whose abilities varied considerably.

The story itself tells of three sisters who all seek to marry the Tsar Saltan. When he chooses the youngest, the others plot against her and see the Tsaritsa and her son, the Tsarevich Guidon, tossed into the sea in a barrel. After being washed up on an island, Guidon wins the heart of a Swan-Princess, becomes ruler of the magical city of Ledenets and finally reunites his mother with the Tsar. It is a plot that requires the cast to capture the fairytale essence in their voices as much as their gestures, and some did so more successfully than others.

The two elder sisters (Tatiana Kravtsova and Natalia Evstafieva) certainly delivered, with Kravtsova’s thicker tones contrasting well with Evstafieva’s sharper voice. Demonstrating strong comic gestures throughout, their dancing also said something about their selfish characters as they circled around each other whilst tossing their scarves. Victoria Yastrebova as the Tsaritsa Militrisa used her angelic voice, whose clear and refined flavour made the upper notes sound effortless, to portray youthful innocence and selflessness, whilst Alexey Tannovitsky as the Tsar was everything one could hope for in a deep Russian bass.

Yastrebova and Tannovitsky’s voices, however, failed to blend in the duet that followed their reconciliation. Similarly, whilst the rough edge to Daniil Shtoda’s voice imbued the Tsarevich Guidon with a steely resilience, his wooden acting was disappointing. Lyudmila Dudinova succeeded in applying a smoky, mystical element to the Swan-Princess’s voice on occasions, but when this was absent her singing was uninspiring. More interesting was Vassily Gorshkov’s turn as Old Grandpa. I could not imagine seeing an English production handing the part to such a young man, relying solely on false beards and comic acting to convey old age, and again it was interesting to see such a Russian approach to the portrayal.

The Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev (though the Sadler’s Wells website implied it would be Valery Gergiev), felt rather rough. To an extent, a certain crudeness was required to heighten the basic emotions in this fairytale piece, and on some occasions – and, in particular, during the Tsaritsa’s arias – the orchestra captured the mood perfectly. On others, however, it was simply raucous and drowned out the singers. Sometimes, its ‘over-excitement’ rubbed off on the audience making certain passages feel enjoyably overwhelming, but overall one felt that such an orchestra should have known better!

The most successful scene was the feast in Act Three at which Guidon, transformed into a bumblebee, creates havoc. Here, with a large chorus headed by three superbly powerful Shipmasters, the opera felt joyfully exuberant, both musically and dramatically. Overall, however, the production seemed rough around the edges and, especially when compared with the Mariinsky Ballet’s more successful appearances earlier in the week, felt just a little disappointing.

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The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Mariinsky Opera @ Sadler’s Wells, London