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Valery Gergiev and The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Rimsky-Korsakov

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

The Tale Of Tsar Saltan
Albina Shagimuratova, Irina Churilova, Edward Tsanga, Mikhail Vekua, Elena Vitman; Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev; dir. Alexander Petrov (St Petersburg, 2015)
Mariinsky MAR0597 (Blu-Ray + DVD)

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These days we see there’s much more to Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas than lushly glittering fantasy. In particular, there’s the mysticism of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, and Mlada; there’s the satire of The Golden Cockerel, and the grimly characterful melodrama of The Tsar’s Bride. With The Tale of Tsar Saltan, though, we’re squarely in fairy-tale territory, a classic Russian skazka from Pushkin’s poem, with ugly sisters, lost prince, witch, magical swan-princess and the like – all of which inspired some of Rimsky’s most gorgeous music, including the famous Flight of the Bumblebee (arranged from two passages) and his signature sea painting.

Poetic imagery, rather than realistic drama, is the point, and this Mariinsky staging, which came to London in 2008, is aptly based on the illustrations of the great Ivan Bilibin, which for over a century have characterised skazki for Russians – though updating his soft hues with vivid post-modern colours, projected graphics and scenic links from Ivanov-Vano’s famous animated version (uncredited). ‘Invisible’ masked mimes, as in Oriental theatre, manage the various magical effects, though the final ‘Three Wonders’ are slightly skimped. Unlike the only previous video, Harry Kupfer’s cutesy-pie and brutally cut East German effort (Quantum Leap), it looks superb on screen (despite some inept hand-held camera-work), a kind of super-pantomime – too long for most children, unfortunately, in Valery Gergiev’s luxuriant, relishing reading.

In this 2015 staging, the singers are good rather than exceptional. Edward Tsanga (who sadly died in 2017, at only 37) is a smooth basso cantante Saltan; soprano Irina Churilova as his wronged wife sings beautifully but not very expressively. Mikhail Vekua’s ardent tenor and lively stage presence suits their son Prince Guidon, and the sisters, supporting cast and chorus are excellent.

The only international name, coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, provides the best singing as a radiant-toned Swan Princess, if less ethereal than others I’ve seen in this staging.

Altogether, this is a fine performance of another Rimsky rarity, well worth adding to one’s collection.

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Michael Scott Rohan