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Culture news
Tale Of Tsar Saltan
03.12.2005 18:39

Tale Of Tsar Saltan The new production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Tale Of Tsar Saltan,,which premiered at the Mariinsky Theater on Tuesday, is like a happy child's dream: placid, multi-colored, entertaining - and it has a happy ending.

Three fair maidens late one night, sat and spun by candle-light, reads a line from Alexander Pushkin's 1832 poem upon which the opera is based. It tells the story of a beautiful girl, Militrisa, who marries Tsar Saltan and gives birth to a son. But her two envious and less fortunate sisters, ill-advised by an old woman named Barbarikha, deceive the Tsar, telling him that his wife has delivered a monster. The Tsar orders the mother and the baby to be put in a cask and thrown to the sea.

The pair survive the ordeal and float to a magic island. The boy grows up and saves a Swan Princess, whom he rescues from enchantement and subsequently marries. Tsar Saltan visits the island and is reunited with his family.

The new staging is highly captivating viewing - and the younger the audience, the better. The production will keep youngsters intrigued but not for a minute frightened. The wood where Militrisa and her son spend their first night on the island is friendly and hospitable rather than scary. Stones, serving as pillows for the exiled heroes, are painted in warm sandy colours and look almost as appetizing as freshly baked buns.

Director Alexander Petrov, the artistic director from the local Zazerkalye Theater - the city's only venue dedicated entirely to children's musical productions - is known for his innovative and daring approach to classical opera.

Petrov has moved Donizetti's Elisir d'amore, originally set in a Tuscan village in the early 19th century, to Italy just before the start of World War II. Nemorino sings his famous aria while riding a shabby bike round a neoclassical-looking courtyard, and the audience hold their breath so tightly that one can distinctly hear the sounds of pedals whirling the bicycle chain.

On this occasion, however, the director refrained from time or character twists and offered a delicately tailored children's performance. From a visual point of view, it is the reconstructed sets by Ivan Bilibin (initially made for a 1937 rendition of the opera) that dictate, or at least inspire, the actors' moves.

Bilibin, a member of the Mir Iskusstva artistic movement, was one of Russia's greatest illustrators of tales. Inspired by Russian folk themes, he developed his own distinct and much-admired style that juxtaposed elements of fantasy, folklore, and historical and geographical authenticity. One of his signature ideas was the incorporation of Russian folk designs, ornaments and motifs into every scene, be it a forest, a house or mountains. Bilibin's ability to bring a chillingly convincing sense of reality to a world of ghosts and glowing skulls makes him close to the pre-Raphaelites.

Petrov clearly feels very close to the mystical side of the story. The scenes of the Swan Princess's divinations are contrasted with the black magic of Barbarikha.

The Mariinsky showcased an impressive cast at the premiere: Mikhail Kit proved a mighty, grand Tsar Saltan, while Yekaterina Solovyova brought a very Russian combination of tenderness, innoncence, adamant will and strong stamina to her Tsaritsa Militrisa. Nadezhda Vasilieva created a compelling image of the evil-spirited, emotionally corrupt Barbarikha; Olga Trifonova was oozing magic as the Swan Princess with her silvery pure soprano accentuated by the silver stripes of her dress. Daniil Shtoda appeared as a perfect Tsarevich Gvidon, both forceful and lyrical.

The Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra gave an outstanding performance under the baton of 28-year-old Tugan Sokhiev, who this year became the company's guest conductor. The orchestra thrived in the mesmerizing glimmers of a starlit night, the lyrical languor of love themes and the festive bravado of the Tsar's Feast. Sokhiev's rapport with the musicians was complete and admirable, with their overall sound being remarkably mild, flowing and smooth.

Despite his young age, the conductor, who became a sensational discovery of the 2000 International Prokofiev Competition in St. Petersburg, already has the experience of being the artistic director of the Welsh National Opera under his belt, as well as having had engagements with the Strasbourg Philharmonic, Orchestre della Toscana, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw, the Houston Grand Opera, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Oslo Philharmonic.

To stay true to Bilibin's special fairy-tale atmosphere of Old Russia, the staging has been made in a very conventional, if not archaic way. But the archaic is very charming and appealing. The forest, terems, landscapes, boats, everything, is flat. Several rows of blue waves shaped from wood or fabric move exactly as they would have some 150 years ago. But, interestingly, animated fairy-tale images projected on the stage during symphonic intermissions fit beautifully with this intentionally old-fashioned show.

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