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.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov for Covent Garden was restaged in 1990 by the Kirov in St. Petersburg with, Tarkovsky by this time no more, Stephen Lawless directing. It being Tarkovsky I had expectations of something really interesting (perhaps a four hour silent opera?) but it’s not really. In fact Tarkovsky seems to have been intimidated by the form or foiled by its technical limitations into producing a lavish but ultimately not very consequential production. The AMOP crowd would thoroughly approve I think.
The 2010 recording of Prokofiev’s The Gambler from the Mariinsky Theatre is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a complicated opera about obsession and power and it needs a strong production and a director who can get coherent performances out of a large cast to fully succeed. Temur Chkhiedze doesn’t really manage it. The production is very straightforward, set in slightly abstracted versions of a hotel, a casino etc and at times it is brought to life by the clever lighting of Gleb Fishtinsky but it doesn’t do enough to establish any real purpose for the piece. It’s not helped by some very broad acting, especially from Sergei Aleksaskin’s General which is further emphasized by video director Laurent Gentot’s heavy use of close ups.
Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten is a problematic work on many levels. Hofmannsthal’s complicated and heavily symbolic libretto places considerable demands on both audience and director. There are ideas about women, marriage and child bearing in the libretto that sit very uncomfortably with modern audiences. It’s also a beast to cast requiring not just a truly Helden tenor and soprano but a second soprano of almost equal heft who can handle some fairly tricky coloratura. It’s also long and requires a large orchestra. In some ways it’s surprising that it gets performed as often as it does although when done well it’s a piece of quite extraordinary beauty and power.
Yuri Temirkanov’s 1992 Kirov Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades is extremely traditional but not dull. It’s given the default Catherine the Great setting and there are opulent ball rooms, gold braid, wigs and crinolines aplenty. There’s also careful direction of the action and some good acting so it’s far from a “park and bark” snoozefest, though it has nothing new or original to say. The lighting for the supernatural bits is especially atmospheric.
Last night I tried to watch Parsifal – The Search for the Grail. Ostensibly it’s a documentary about the origins of Wagner’s opera and to give it opera cred they roped in one Placido Domingo as narrator. Valery Gergiev is also involved. What a load of tosh! It’s basically a rather weak history of the Grail as portrayed in popular culture complete with Monty Python, Indiana Jones, real Nazis as well as fake ones, pitiful reconstructions of crusader battles and on and on. Mind numbing cliché follows mind numbing cliché. Nul points! What was Domingo thinking of associating himself with this dreck?
One of the early Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts was a 2007 showing of Robert Carsen’s 1997 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming. It was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Decca and remains one of the most successful disk releases spawned by the broadcasts.