15 Apr 2007


This sumptuous 2006 release was recorded live in the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in late 1993 for European TV broadcast the following year.

Judging by a comparison of timings, this is presumably the same performance that produced the audio recording of the work released on CD by Philips several years ago. Gergiev and the Kirov Opera have here added most significantly to their ongoing project of awakening the rest of the world to the vast treasures of Russian opera that lie beyond the better known Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin, and Ruslan and Lyudmila, for example. In particular, their CD releases of the operas of Rimsky-Korskaov have been an exciting chapter in this project, and one can only hope that the present video release is the first step in the DVD counterpart of that chapter.

Those familiar only with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral works (Scherezade, Russian Easter Festival Overture, Capriccio Espagnol) would hardly be surprised by the brilliance of the orchestral pallet in his operas – except that in the variety and imagination of his scoring he exceeds in them even the deserved credit for the path-breaking achievements of his concert works. That his operas should have called forth his best efforts in this regard is certainly reasonable, as generally they are less true operas than illustrations in sound of scenes from Russian stories and legends. One searches in vain for gripping drama, vast historical canvases, or keen psychological insights and character development, possibly one reason that Sadko, certainly one of the greatest of Rimsky’s fifteen completed operas, is so seldom seen in Western opera houses. As the composer himself admits in his memoir, My Musical Life, “The folk-life and the fantastic elements in Sadko do not, by their nature, offer purely dramatic claims” (from the Joffe translation, New York, 1972).

Of course, an essentially negative description of how Rimsky-Korsakov conceived many of his operas misses the point. His clear intent was to encapsulate the cultural flavor of Russia through adapting its stories into episodic sequences of colorful scenes enlivened by atmospheric music. The subtitle of the present work clearly reflects this intent: a bylina is an epic folk tale, and the apt term “tableaux” shows clearly that Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking visually rather than in “acts.” Furthermore, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that musical concerns, rather than textual details, were uppermost in the composer’s mind, to the extent that an 1867 symphonic poem – Sadko, Op. 5 – provided him with both inspiration and raw musical material for the opera he completed some thirty years later (the opera was completed in 1896, first performed in public in 1897). That he remained drawn to this character and his story throughout this period is demonstrated by the several revisions he made to the original orchestral work prior to beginning the composition of the opera. Further evidence of symphonic influence lies in the motivic interconnections that bind together various scenic and character elements in the opera.

Sadko is a work dominated by the sea. The basis of the tale may be summed up by saying that the hero, Sadko, falls in love with Princess Volkhova, daughter of the Sea King, and, true to her promise, eventually finds himself in her father’s undersea kingdom where he claims her hand. On their return to his native Novgorod, she sacrifices herself to become a river, the Volkhov, which then forms a waterway to the inland city and thus ensures its economic prosperity. It is in the aural evocation of the sea that Rimsky Korsakov’s masterful use of the orchestra is at its most brilliant: The Introduction (“The Blue Sea”), the music that introduces Tableau VI in the Sea King’s palace, and the transformation music as Princess Volkhova becomes the Volkhov River in Tableau VII are but three of the most engaging examples of the composer’s magical scene painting. One is hard-pressed not to draw comparisons with his contemporaries, Ravel and Debussy, comparisons by which Rimsky-Korsakov would hardly come off as second-best. His expanded harmonic language alone, particularly in these scenes, markedly strengthens the similarities.

Conductor Valery Gergiev leads his very capable Kirov Orchestra with great sensitivity to the colors and textures of these and many other passages in Sadko, and the sound engineers have created an aural feast worthy of the players’ laudable efforts. In the passages cited above, the lighting effects, beautifully conceived throughout the work, are especially worth mentioning, as they complement the “water music” superbly. The set design and costume work likewise fulfill completely their important roles of establishing the Russian folk atmosphere while also providing a beautiful and colorful backdrop for the various scenes.

Vocally, a central and very satisfying part of this presentation is that provided by the Kirov Opera Chorus, which has plenty of opportunity to shine as a virtual protagonist in the various village scenes. They sing with power, beauty, and excellent ensemble, balancing perfectly the prominent role of the orchestra. Turning to the soloists, the three merchants, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, and Gegam Grigorian, are each outstanding in their contrasting and memorable appearances in Tableau IV; Grigorian’s interpretation of the justly famous “Song of India” is particular noteworthy. Sergei Aleksashkin uses his stentorian and characteristically Russian bass to good effect as the Sea King. Among the women, gusli-player Nezhata is well-portrayed by Larissa Diadkova, and Marianna Tarassova gives Sadko’s earth-bound and temporarily jilted wife Lyubava Buslayevna an appropriately emotional characterization. On the less satisfying side, Valentina Tsidipova, despite her beautiful if light lyric soprano, lacks the vocal depth to carry off the role of Princess Volkhova adequately. This brings us to the major disappointment here, and it is a serious one: tenor Vladimir Galusin in the title role. Admittedly, the demands on him are heavy and virtually continuous throughout the work, but Galusin rises to them only occasionally. His voice frequently sounds strained and, on more than one occasion, his intonation is annoyingly faulty.

On balance, however, even lacking a satisfactory Sadko, this production is so strong and so satisfying overall that it should immediately find its way into the collection of anyone serious about Russian opera and especially of anyone who has not yet discovered this repertoire. Visually and aurally stunning, this production will withstand repeated viewing and thus comes highly recommended.

Roy J. Guenther
The George Washington University