Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai


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.

BuxtondoubleJean Sibelius - The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Kashchei the Immortal

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stuart Stratford, Stephen Lawless, Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton, Owen Gilhooly | Buxton Opera House - 12 July 2012

Even though they are both very different in style, approach and meaning, there is at least one very obvious common theme between the two exceptionally near-contemporaneous rare one-act operas brought together in Buxton’s “Festival Double Bill” - both clearly deal with young women held captive in a tower by an evil, oppressive figure of power. If Jean Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower (Jungfrun i tornet), the composer’s only opera work, is the slighter and more superficial of the two in its treatment of this theme - both in narrative and in musical terms - it’s contrasted nonetheless to good effect in this clever pairing with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsahov’s Kashchei the Immortal, which is characteristically a richer and more complex reading of fantasy fairytale elements for this composer, aligning its themes and concept towards making a very real statement about the political situation in the Russia of its time.

The Buxton Opera production smartly avoids making reference to any early Russian turn-of-the-20th-century social or political messages, which though interesting are far from relevant today and perhaps one of the reasons why the work is so rarely staged outside of Russia. Instead, Stephen Lawless’s direction cleverly links the two works through having the same singers play corresponding/contrasting roles in both works, allowing the characterisation of the earlier Sibelius work to influence the meaning of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Removing the original context of a work and replacing it with another artificial background is of course not an uncommon practice in opera productions, but usually it is achieved through an updating or reworking of the stage setting, period and location. It’s highly unusual to see a work given a different musical background as a basis in this manner but it’s cleverly and most successfully done here in a way that doesn’t distort the deeper meaning of the two works.

It’s probably the Sibelius work however that gains the most from this double-bill enhancement. The Maiden in the Tower has a very simple storyline set at a children’s birthday party, although one immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta‘ and how dark and twisted that can be. The Maiden in the Tower does indeed set out with just such an intent, emphasised during the short overture in this production where the bailiff’s son, at his birthday party, is seen cruelly twisting off a doll’s head and furtively peeking up its skirt before donning a demon mask, effectively summarising his character is a few brief stokes - as does Sibelius in the score. When the bailiff’s son’s advances are rebuffed by a young uninvited guest, the boy has her locked away in a tower intent on having his wicked way with her. The girl’s reputation is mocked by the other guests, but her young boyfriend discovers the truth and tries to rescue her, fighting the bailiff’s son. A governess intervenes and releases the girl and the party continues without the birthday boy.

As a version of the Britten-like theme of the corruption of innocence, The Maiden in the Tower is not a terribly complex or insightful affair, the dialogue straightforward and declarative, and it’s not scored in any particularly subtle way either by Sibelius. It does however sound ravishing, with a Tchaikovsky-like Romanticism in its symphonic and folk-tinged arrangements which give strong dramatic punctuation to the Cherevichki-like folk and fairytale elements, with some wonderful chorus work that strikes those moments home even further. The piece is however given a little more edge from the stage direction which plays on the awkward age of innocent children approaching sexual awareness and makes the most of the singers evidently looking older than the children they are playing. This takes on another layer of depth when placed alongside Kashchei the Immortal. Is the kind of childish devilment and humiliation that has been inflicted at an early age capable of developing into something rather more unsettling and dangerous in later life?

Kashchei the Immortal, despite its more obviously fantastical setting, does actually suggest that this could indeed be the case with its evil magician. Played by the same actor/singer who played the bailiff’s son in The Maiden in the Tower, Kashchei has not only imprisoned a princess in his tower (Kate Ladner again the unfortunate captive), but he has brought-up his daughter Kashcheyevna to seduce and kill men in order to avenge himself “for past humiliations”. Seeing in his magic glass (an old flickering TV set here) the threat of the Princess’s lover Ivan, he dispatches the Storm Wind to warn Kashcheyevna, but his daughter finds herself unable to carry out her evil deeds despite having Ivan at her mercy. The Storm Wind, who had been held captive by Kashchei, spirits Ivan to the castle to rescue the Princess. Realising that she is in love with Ivan, who rejects her, Kashcheyevna weeps, and in displaying such emotion she brings about the destruction of Kashchei.

As well as using the same singers for similar roles, the connection between the two works in this production is evident in the subtle transformation of the same set used in both pieces and the connecting element of the demon mask, but nothing else is over-emphasised to the extent that the shadow of Sibelius lingers over Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It does however feel appropriate that the moral of goodness triumphing over the seemingly immortal power of evil and being rewarded as promised in childhood stories does indeed be seen to be true in later adult life. In an additional twist at the conclusion however, the production realistically considers that such experiences do not come without a human cost. It’s not just “happily ever after”. The Princess, released from her captivity, the cruel ruler destroyed, curls up beside the defeated Kashchei as if having endured the captivity, she is unable to recognise freedom or in some way her inherent goodness sympathises with his predicament. It’s a truthful touch that shows that the situation has been realistically considered just as thoughtfully as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the work itself with its underlying real-world meaning.

The performances in this production were simply marvellous across the board, the five main singers - Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton and Owen Gilhooly - equally strong, alive to the possibilities within these enhanced characters, giving them perfect expression in the singing and in the acting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Stuart Stratford also delivered a stirring performance that played to the strengths of these two very different musical works in a way that also made the most of their complementary contrasts.

CoqdorNikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Le Coq d’Or (The Golden Cockerel)

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2002 | Kent Nagano, Ennosuke Ichikawa, Isao Takashima, Albert Schagidullin, Ilya Levinsky, Andrei Breus, Ilya Bannik, Elena Manistina, Barry Banks, Olga Trifonova, Yuri Maria Saenz | Arthaus Musik

The Châtelet’s impressive staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, recorded here in Paris in 2002 (hence the French title) is one that dates back to 1984, a co-production with San Francisco Opera. This recording has already been released on DVD, but it is another one of those productions that are so visually splendid and memorable that it more than merits an upgrade to Blu-ray. Designed by Ennosuke Ichikawa as a Kabuki staging, it’s an impressive production that fits surprisingly well in tone and content with the intentions of the original fairytale opera with a moral.

The opera, Rimsky-Korsakov’s final work, composed in 1906, is based on a Pushkin poem ‘The House of the Weathercock’, and the minimalist simplicity of the set design reflects that transparency of the fairytale’s simple moral message. King Dodon, fearful of his country being invaded by their neighbours and forced by his General to discount the foolish advice of his two sons, puts his trust instead in a Golden Cockerel sold to him by the Astrologer that will crow to warn him when his enemies are about to attack. Despite the warnings of the Cockerel, whose alerts have the king sending armies out to all parts of his kingdom, Dodon fails however to recognise the threat that is posed by the arrival of the Queen of Shemakha. Dodon is “a Tsar in appearance, but a slave in body and soul” when he falls for the Queen’s beauty and allows himself to be seduced by her charms. Acting out of fear, pride, lust, the moral of course is that even noble rulers have basic human weaknesses and are not immune – more likely in fact – to act out of self-interest and for personal gain.

Both Rimsky-Korsakov and the librettist V. Bel’sky laid down very specific remarks about how The Golden Cockerel should be performed (these notes are reproduced in the accompanying booklet in the BD and DVD releases), which as well as disapproving of any cuts to the work or the introduction of any additional interjections by the singers – as might be expected – note that the purpose of the work is “undoubtedly symbolic” and that the purely human character its intent “allows us to place the plot in any surroundings and in any period”, recognising however that there is an essential Russian character involved. It’s clear then that this production, even if it has a somewhat more oriental flavour, is nonetheless completely faithful to the original intentions and even perhaps recognises that the opera was inspired by the conflict between Russia and Japan in 1904 at the time the opera was composed. The suggestions of military incompetence on the part of the authorities would in fact lead to the opera being banned by the censor, only receiving its premiere after the death of the composer.

The basic stage dressing for this production then is accordingly simple and abstract in the manner of a fable where the moral is symbolic, but it is also extraordinarily beautiful with all the magic and fascination of a fairytale. If the stage then consists of little more than a brightly luminous backdrop to reflect the time of day or mood, and there is little on the stage but some steps to suggest a royal palace and stylised trees to represent the kingdom, the colourful costumes and Kabuki make-up reflect the larger-than-life characters and, to a large extent, Rimsky-Korsakov’s rich romantic scoring of the work, filled with fantastical melodies and folk influences, with leitmotifs and a Scheherazade-like middle-Eastern exoticism. It’s given a wonderful warm account here at the Châtelet with Kent Nagano conducting.

Cockerel

The space is needed on the stage moreover to contain all the extras, chorus and dancers – all beautifully costumed – and give room to the principals, because this is after all to a large extent a singer’s opera (rather than say a dramatic opera or a conceptual one), with a wonderful range of voices and expression from bass declamation to soprano coloratura. Using a mainly Russian cast, those roles are in good hands in this Châtelet production, with bass Albert Schagidullin as King Dodon and Olga Trifonova the Queen of Shemakha. In among all those Russians however is Barry Banks, perfectly cast for the specific demands of the high tenor role of the Astrologer. It’s particularly delightful that the singing is of a very high standard throughout, but this is a wonderful production on just about every level.

This beautiful, colourful production certainly benefits from its upgrade to Blu-ray for the High Definition 16:9 widescreen image and for the sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that put over the qualities of the orchestration and singing. It’s really quite breathtaking. The Blu-ray is All-Region, 1080i, a BD25 disc with no extra features, although the booklet is informative and includes a synopsis. Subtitles are English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese.