Grigorian, Gegam


SadkoNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Sadko

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 1994 | Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Galusin, Valentina Tsidipova, Marianna Tarassova, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander Gergalov, Gegam Grigorian, Sergei Alexashkin, Larissa Diadkova | Philips - DVD

Opera can take many forms, but apart from Wagner only the High Romantic Russian composers have really exploited its potential to elaborate on the epic power of myth, legend and folklore. Even then, there can be few composers who have had such an affinity for this type of subject as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. So grand are the extravagant displays of such works as The Golden Cockerel, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Sadko however that they’ve been regarded as troublesome and costly to stage and largely neglected in the west. As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer has suffered, or he is at least not held in the same high regard as he is in Russia.

If you really want to appreciate the nature of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work then it’s best seen in Russia, and a perfect example of that is this magnificent 1994 recording of the rarely performed Sadko at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg conducted by Valery Gergiev. Musically and in terms of singing it’s an impeccable performance and authentically Russian, which means big strong voices of power and precision. Gergiev conducting of the Kirov orchestra draws out all the lush textures, folk rhythms and the sheer orchestral majesty of Rimsky-Korsakov’s wondrous score, which recognises and fully expresses the power and the importance of legends and mythology and their ability to transform our view of the world.

The opera itself, first performed in 1898, is an utterly enthralling fusion of epic storytelling with music and theatre. Sadko is a ‘bylina‘, an epic medieval folktale that recounts the creation of the river Volkhova that connects Lake Ilmen to the Okian sea, bringing prosperity to the merchants of Novgorod. That’s brought about by Sadko, a clever merchant, adventurer and musician who woos the Sea Princess Volkhova through his playing of the gusli. Rather than having traditional operatic Acts, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera breaks the story down into seven beautiful, lyrical scenes, with a great deal of spectacle and ballet sequences to enrich it. The story calls for the transformation of swans on a lake into the Sea Princess and her maidens, huge village scenes and festivals for choruses, the catching of three golden fish, an ocean crossing and the creation of an undersea kingdom, so Sadko is quite a challenge to stage.

The Mariinsky’s production, in this video recording dating from 1994, is accordingly very bold and colourful, as well as traditionally theatrical in the Mariinsky style. Painted backdrops create the impression of vast scale as well as the fairytale picturebook nature of the story, with plenty of room left in the foreground for the huge choruses, the choreographed movements of the chorus and the beautiful ballet sequences. A “wonder of wonders” and “marvel of marvels” - to use a phrase used often in the libretto - Sadko could hardly look more spectacular, the colourful theatricality and the medieval costumes fully living up to the larger-than-life context of the work and the extravagantly rich orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov has composed for it.

There’s a recognition however of the importance of the smallest details in the grander scale of the composition of the work that is reflected in the attention to detail on the part of both the stage direction and the musical performance. Within all the spectacle are wonderful lyrical moments and demanding singing passages that require great stamina as well as beauty of expression from the singers. Considering he is not just the central figure, but a minstrel who charms the Sea Princess, you would at least expect a strong Sadko and Vladimir Galusin gives a commanding and charismatic performance. He’s matched well with Valentina Tsidipova’s Volkhova who deals well if not always perfectly with the considerable challenges of the role.

Sadko however also offers a variety of dramatic roles and some colourful set-piece cameos. In the former category Marianna Tarassova stands out as Sadko’s neglected wife, as does Larissa Diadkova as another gusli-playing minstrel narrator. In the latter category Sergei Alexashkin is suitably impressive as the booming and formidable Sea King, but there are also wonderful moments from the other Novgorod merchants, from the three representatives of foreign lands (Viking, Indian and Venetian), and of course from the chorus. The Kirov Ballet provide further colour and movement that maintains a wonderful energetic flow to the work in several beautiful dance sequences.

The 1994 performance was directed for the screen by Brian Large, who captures the occasion with his usual professionalism and alertness to the rhythms of the work itself. It’s clearly not filmed in High Definition as you would expect of a more modern recording, but the widescreen image nonetheless looks good on this 2007 DVD from Philips that gets across the colour and magic of the production design as much as it is able. Audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and German.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg 1998 | Valery Gergiev, Elijah Moshinsky, Grigory Kaasev, Galina Gorchakova, Nikolai Putilin, Gegam Grigorian, Marianna Tarasova, Sergei Alexashkin, Georgy Zashavny, Lia Shevtsova, Yevegeny Nikitin, Nikolai Gassiev, Yun Laptev | Arthaus Musik

The principal attraction of this recording of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino is that it’s a performance of the rarely heard original St Petersburg version, written by the composer for the Imperial Opera in 1862. It was subsequently revised in 1867 for Milan and it’s the later version that has become the more commonly performed or at least better known principally for the famous extended overture that Verdi added. In reality, although there is clearly an attempt by the composer to bring a better musical and dramatic integrity to the piece, the differences between the two versions aren’t all that significant, but in addition to having a rare opportunity to compare them, there is the pleasure alone of seeing a fine performance of the earlier version actually being performed in St Petersburg in 1998 at the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev.

If there’s still a lack of coherence to the drama in both versions, and a failure to conform to the expected romantic models (up until the tragic denouement of the opera Don Alvaro and Leonora only meet briefly in the short Act 1 and not in circumstances best suited to a romantic duet) - which may be considered a point in its favour - Verdi’s musical motifs bring a sense of that force of destiny that directs the course of three lives and draws them together. After Alvaro’s accidental killing of her father, the Marchese di Calatrava, as they prepare to go against his wishes and elope, Leonora (like many of Verdi’s opera heroines by no means a straightforward virtuous character) casts herself into the hands of fate and becomes a hermit. Alvaro, fleeing from the disaster, bemoans his fate not to be a noble of ancient Inca blood, but a man forced to run from the horror of the death he has unwittingly caused, and the love of Leonora that he has lost. Leonora’s brother Don Carlo di Vargas meanwhile is forced to strive to find his father’s killer and restore the honour of the Calatrava name.

Destino

Although it remains imperfect in both versions, Verdi’s later attempts to add characterisation and musical refinement still not being enough to compensate for a dramatic structure that remains disjointed with some implausible twists of fate, there’s some interest certainly in seeing the original version played out with a little more of that punchy earlier Verdi style. Not being quite so concerned with a dramatic flow, but being made up more evidently of a variety of little scenes and choral set-pieces, the St Petersburg version of La Forza del Destino follows the Italian aria-cabaletta opera model a little more closely. These are reduced in the later version, with some arias cut through the restructuring of the drama - notably Don Alvaro’s ‘Quel sangue sparsi’, delivered at the end of Act III when Carlo is believed dead in a duel that is not interrupted by troops as in the later version - and through attempts by Verdi to bring a sense of reconciliation, or perhaps accommodation with one’s fate in a manner that is slightly less harsh than the original, Alvaro throwing himself from a cliff at the conclusion here.

Despite the revisions made to the Italian version, the essential dramatic arc and the fate of the characters however remain largely unchanged. The coincidences that tie these figures are still not entirely convincing, but they are made compelling - in both versions - by the strength in Verdi’s musical writing that aligns character so beautifully not just to Wagnerian leitmotifs, but to melodies that are expressive of their condition. It might have a mid-eighteenth century setting, but it’s clear that Verdi doesn’t have to look too far beyond his own time to relate in some meaningful way with these figures who in better times might have been friends and lovers, but whose lives have been torn apart by greater forces beyond their control - the tides of war, fate and the demands of honour.

Destino

Directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky, this 1998 recording at the Mariinsky Theatre is a very traditional period staging, but the theatricality of the painted backdrops that set the scene for the Seville locations, army camps and monasteries suits the punchier, melodramatic style of the earlier version of the work, the dark lighting of the stage working also with the dark tones in Verdi’s score. That’s brought out wonderfully by Valery Gergiev in this production, finding nonetheless a romantic sweep and sensitivity within the score that works hand-in-hand with the heavier dramatic colouring. I’m not familiar with any of the Russian singers here but they are well cast and handle the Italian phrasing well. Galina Gorchakova is a fine Leonora, carrying the nature and interior conflict of her character well, her singing strong and consistent. Gegam Grigorian is a lovely lyrical Don Alvaro, but doesn’t always seem to be dramatically involved. His ‘Della natal sua terra’ aria at the start of Act III is beautifully sung, but he’s not as strong in ‘Quel sangue sparsi’ by the end of the act. Nikolai Putilin is a solid, earnest Don Carlo, but I didn’t find Marianna Tarasova made such a strong impact as Preziosilla.

Directed for the screen by Brian Large, the production comes across well giving a good impression of the whole stage while capturing all the little details in the drama without any excessive editing trickery or close-ups, although there is one awkward edit at the end of Act III. A 1998 recording, it is not filmed in High Definition, so there’s no Blu-ray release, but the quality of the 16:9 widescreen image for DVD is excellent nonetheless, as is the quality of the PCM 2.0 stereo audio track. Other than notes on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet, there are no extra features on the disc itself, the 2 hours 45 minutes of the opera on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format. The disc is compatible for all regions. Subtitles are in English, German, French, Dutch and Spanish only - there is no Italian for anyone wanting to read the original libretto.