The Tale of Tsar Saltan - Mariinsky Opera - Sadlers Wells, 17 October 2008
As a review of the 2005 Mariinsky Theatre premiere of this production points out, it was designed for children ("the younger the audience, the better").
This snippet of information Sadlers Wells withheld, no doubt thinking the more £60 tickets we can flog, the better.
But it had plenty to offer for the grown-ups too - one of the reasons it remains a staple of the Russian repertoire, despite being rarely-staged over here.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan naturally lends itself to a family-friendly treatment in any case. Rimsky-Korsakov took a quintessential fairytale complete with beautiful princesses and wicked stepsisters and packed it with hummable tunes and soothing harmonies.
Though structurally it owes something to Wagner, with its through-composition and leitmotifs, there's little harmonic adventure, and no attempt to symbolise, characterise, or probe more than a millimetre below the surface. So the decision of director Alexander Petrov (also artistic director of a children's musical theatre) for visual splash at the expense of psychological insight is artistically appropriate, not just junior audience-friendly.
The sets are really the star in this production, and they are closely based on Ivan Bilibin's 1937 designs. They were in turn based on Bilibin's 1905 illustrations for the Pushkin poem The Tale of Tsar Saltan - as was the opera itself in 1900. So while they're not technically the original sets for the opera, they can at least claim a degree of contemporaneity.
The folkloric designs pulsate with colour and pattern, and the conscious artifice of the flat wooden sets emphasises the unreality of the tale being told. The only modern touch came in the orchestral interludes, accompanied by gently-animated backdrops of Bilibin's illustrations.
Gowned in luscious brocades and explosive prints, the performers didn't go for naturalism either. The sort of choreographed gesticulation on display could have looked as wooden as the sets in another context.
But when your hero prince turns into an insect and back again, then marries a swan who turns into a princess, it works perfectly. Or almost. The infamous Flight of the Bumblebee, portrayed here by a dancer racing round the stage with a fist-sized cuddly toy bee on a stick, provoked perfectly understandable laughter.
As the Mariinsky company carry on performing in St Petersburg while they're on tour, what we got in London was a sort of B team - not that it was particularly obvious. The singers weren't particularly starry, but none were less than competent, and there were some terrific character performances.
Victoria Yastrebova, a sort of Netrebko-in-waiting, could certainly hold the stage, and as the Tsaritsa who is wrongly cast out by the Tsar had the opportunity to present a more rounded and human characterisation than some of the others.
But the show was almost stolen by the smaller comic parts, especially the interfering crone Babarikha, played by Nadezhda Vasilieva, and Vassily Gorshkov's silly old Grandpa.
The orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev sounded oddly less 'Russian' than I'd expected, but splendid all the same. A few brass-laden moments threatened to lift the roof off Sadlers Wells (obviously EU noise regs haven't migrated east) but they were generally well-balanced with the stage, and tremendously spirited in the orchestral interludes.
Not everyone enjoyed the brazen naivety of the production (a certain opera director left at the interval, who knows why), but there's only so far the Eastenders-in-corsets verism of most current productions can go. I suspect a more contemporary approach would shatter the delicate magical spell which is this opera's main reward.
Some more production photos:
And some from the curtain call (by intermezzo.typepad.com), which show the gorgeous costumes more clearly:
Here's an amateur video of the production, shot inside the Mariinsky. Not the highest of quality, but the first couple of minutes give a glimpse of the beautiful Mariinsky theatre itself, and the rest includes representative musical snatches:
And here's a pointless musical exercise if ever there was. Flight of the Bumblebee performed on 8 pianos. Culprits include the usual suspect, Lang Lang, but what makes it bizarrely compulsive is that Martha Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, James Levine, Emanuel Ax, Leif Ove Andsnes, Mikhail Pletnev, Staffan Scheja, Nicholas Angelich and Claude Frankare are also implicated: