Rimsky Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan doesn’t get a lot of performances outside Russia and there’s only one video recording in the catalogue. It was recorded in 2015 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 2015 and is now available as a dual format DVD/Blu-ray package. It’s a curious work. It’s based on a Russian folk tale based poem by Pushkin turned into an opera libretto in a prologue and four acts by Vladimir Belsky. It’s quite odd in that much of it is in a simple strophic form similar to the “wedding song” that Mandryka sings in Strauss’ Arabella. I have no idea if this is typical of Slavic folk song but it’s a bit repetitive especially when coupled to Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful but not especially interesting music. The music is actually rather better in the orchestral interludes, notably the famous Flight of the Bumblebee and some of the choruses which are grand in the Russian manner.
The production is directed by Alexander Petrov but it’s most remarkable for the sets and costumes by Vladimir Firer based on illustrations by Ivan Bilibin. It’s sort of like Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet on steroids crossed with Disney Princess. This effect is reinforced by the way the orchestral passages that introduce each act are treated on the video. There’s a child’s marionette theatre showing a silent cartoon version of the act to come interspersed with video of the orchestra. I don’t think that this was projected in the theatre but who knows? In any event, on video, it serves to reinforce the cartoonish elements of the production. It’s also fair to say that the acting is old fashioned and stagey, which may be deliberate or may be the Mariinsky house style as this is, basically, an ensemble production. Some people will no doubt see it as a wonderful return to traditional Russian production values, others will likely think WTF!
The singing is pretty decent. Edward Tsanga as the Tsar, Irina Churilova as the Tsaritsa and Mikhail Vekhua as their son Prince Guidon all sing quite nicely and idiomatically and there is a particular fine performance from Albina Shagimuratova as the Swan Princess. Some of the rest is a bit provincial and overly broadly comic. There are lots of dance elements and proper dancers are used as one might expect in a Russian house. No expense spared on extras either and the large chorus can produce a full throated sound when needed. Valery Gergiev conducts the house orchestra and one senses that both are very much at home in this music.
Video direction is by Anna Matison and it’s almost as old fashioned as the production. There are lots of close ups which really don’t help here and not nearly enough of the weirdly interesting sets and scenery.
Technically this is a bit odd. It’s a dual format DVD/Blu-ray release and I watched the Blu-ray. The picture is 1080i but it doesn’t really look like it was recorded in true HD. It’s surprisingly soft focus at times, almost as if it was mastered from 35mm film stock. Certainly I’ve seen 720p TV broadcasts that were crisper. Similarly the soundtrack is only available as LPCM stereo and it’s pretty decent but not as good as one expects on Blu-ray. There’s no surround mix. I suspect that this was not recorded in HD and was upsampled for the Blu-ray but who knows? There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is a bit terse too with a synopsis and a bio of Gergiev, all in excruciatingly small print, but no track listing. Subtitle options are English, Russian, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.
So, a bit of an oddity in many ways but there’s no competition so if one wants to see Tsar Saltan this is the only option.