RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Tale of Tsar Saltan
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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Tale of Tsar Saltan

DVD Button Churilova, Shagimuratova, Solovyova, Kravtsova, Vitman; Tsanga, Vekua; Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, Gergiev. Production: Petrov. Mariinsky MAR0597, 150 mins., subtitles

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Tsar Power: the cast in Saint Petersburg
Valentin Baranovsky © State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
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ALEXANDER PETROV'S 2005 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Tsar Saltan is delightful. Filmed in July 2015 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, this performance features a superb cast, which brings humanity and artistry to the sometimes silly yet heartfelt fairy tale. Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus, making Rimsky-Korsakov’s sprawling score shimmer with a full spectrum of colors, from the cool silvers of the enchanted Swan-Princess and menacing shadows of the evil sisters to the ardent reds of the tale’s hero, Prince Guidon.

Based on Pushkin’s 1831 poem of the same name, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera had its premiere in 1900 (just a year late for the Pushkin centenary in 1899). Tsar Saltan has chosen the modest Militrisa for his wife, prompting her two jealous sisters to plot revenge with the help of an old woman, Barbarikha. While the Tsar is away at war, they intercept the letter announcing the birth of his son and replace it with one saying that his wife has borne a monster. The Tsar replies by ordering Militrisa and Prince Guidon sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. Miraculously, they land on the mythological island of Buyan, where Guidon, now full-grown, saves an enchanted Swan-Princess and is made ruler of the magical city of Ledenets, which has appeared overnight. Later, the Swan-Princess will turn Guidon into a bee, so he can catch up with his fleet and visit his father’s kingdom. (This is the dramatic context for the piece’s famous “Flight of the Bumblebee.”) There, Guidon learns of a beautiful, faraway princess and falls in love. All of this happens quickly.

Petrov’s production makes no foolhardy attempts at cramming the work’s fairy-tale fantasy into the restrictions of realism. The storybook qualities are magnified by the brilliantly painted two-dimensional set pieces and backdrops designed by Vladimir Firer after sketches by the twentieth-century Russian illustrator and set designer Ivan Bilibin, who designed the 1909 premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or. This production is a throwback, unabashedly traditional, yet it avoids the stasis of nostalgia by leaning into the fantasy, rather than trying to explain or subdue it. 

While not everyone in the cast has a secure or beautiful voice, they all provide a strong sense of character through committed performances, especially Vasily Gorshkov, as the Old Man, and Denis Begansky, as the Jester. Irina Churilova is an earnest Militrisa, with a strong, clear soprano. As her two sisters, Varvara Solovyova and Tatiana Kravtsova are consummate actresses, as is their partner-in-evil, Elena Vitman, as Barbarikha.

But it isn’t until Albina Shagimuratova’s appearance in Act II, singing the Swan-Princess’s dreamy aria “Ty, Tsarevich, moy spasitel,” that the performance really comes to life. Shagimuratova’s musicality and poise are enchanting, fitting perfectly into the production’s fairy-tale aesthetic. As Prince Guidon, tenor Mikhail Vekua masterfully balances the role’s lyricism and heroism. His duet with Shagimuratova in Act IV, in which the Swan-Princess reveals herself to be the beautiful princess that Prince Guidon loves, is one of the highlights of this performance—and the score.  —Steven Jude Tietjen 

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