Nikolai 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.