‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’ of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov


“I do not like grief, bereavements, and commemorative masses. If you ever want to think of me, when I’m gone, just listen to my music.”

                                         Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

While his symphonic music is universally praised, do people really know the operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov outside Russia?

La Monnaie loves Russian operas

Gradually, however, they reappear on the international scene as the recent production of ‘The Golden Cockerel’ in La Monnaie last winter. The same exquisite musical and dramatic qualities have shown up again in ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’, another masterwork by Rimsky-Korsakov. A perfect way to celebrate summer and to close its 2018-19 season splendidly. ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’ (Сказка о царе Салтане) is an opera in four acts and a prologue.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed this masterwork at the very end of the 19th century and created it in a private theatre in Moscow in 1900. The work took time to get to the great lyrical halls since long considered too strange. However, La Monnaie staged it in 1926, two years before Paris.  And yet, this is a true masterpiece of the composer.

Three dedicated masters

And who could best render all its symbolic strength, if not the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and the sensitive musical director Alain Altinoglu, who last winter also conducted so brilliantly ‘The Golden Cockerel’?

Born in Paris, Alain Altinoglu studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris where he now teaches the conducting class. A regular guest at the world’s leading opera houses, Altinoglu appears at Metropolitan Opera New York, Royal Opera House London Covent Garden, the Teatro Colón Buenos Aires, Wiener Staatsoper, Opernhaus Zürich, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Bayerische Staatsoper München and all three opera houses in Paris. He has also appeared at the festivals in Bayreuth, Salzburg, Orange and Aix-en-Provence. He is in his third season as Music Director of Brussels’ Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie.

The great Russian works have been regularly on the programme of the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra. All the more so as Chorusmaster Martino Faggiani’s La Monnaie Chorus seems to have acquired somehow a true Russian soul.

About the composer

Born in the province of Novorod into a wealthy family and raised in the countryside, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote his first compositions while a naval officer. A fervent nationalist, he became a member of the famous ‘Five’, a group that brought together, in addition to himself, Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui.  The group advocated specifically national music, inspired by Russian tradition and detached if not opposed to Western standards. This aspiration would even cause some problems with imperial censorship.

He became a famous composer, a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but in 1892 he went through a period of depression that made him consider abandoning music altogether. It is the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 which paradoxically gave him the energy to resume his work.

Christmas Eve, a successful opera based on a short story by Gogol, marked the beginning of a series (eleven between 1893 and 1908), which only death would cut short. The opera ‘Tsar Saltan’, whose complete title is ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan’, is the fourth in this series.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote this piece for Pushkin’s 100th birthday, after one of his poems from 1831. The musician’s love for old legends, a certain mysticism, and his sense of melody and orchestration make the best of the rhythms of the Russian language. It highlighted the poet’s overflowing imagination and absurd humour as well. Vladimir Bielsky, the librettist, closely followed Pushkin’s story.

The story in a nutshell

On the island of Bouiane, three sisters dream of marrying the Tsar. Having chosen the youngest, Saltan makes the two elders the cook and the weaver of his palace, to their great shame. They want revenge. They plot with old Babarikha, and accuse their younger innocent sister of giving birth to a monster while the Tsar is at war.

Thereupon, he orders that mother and child be locked in a barrel and thrown into the sea. They escape from dangers and the child named Gvidon grows up on a desert island with his caring mother.

He saves a princess-swan from a wizard-vulture. His wish to become a good king of a golden city comes true but he still longs for the father he has never met. The magic help of the swan also transforms the yearning soul into a bumblebee. The ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is a world known music. A trick that enables him to visit his father secretly in his palace and take revenge of the silly sisters and old Babarikha, with three well-applied bee-stings.

Still, what he misses most, is the love of a girl. Keeping things simple, he eventually marries the princess-swan, who declares she is a princess. On which, the overjoyed mother blesses the happy couple.

Unexpectedly, his real blessing comes when the Tsar finally recognises him as his son. Hearing of the wonders of the magic island and its golden city, he has indeed sailed to visit this absolutely perfect place. A grand banquet of reconciliation closes the story. Happy ending!

An intense and refined performance, gorgeous music, to be seen at La Monnaie, until June 29th 2019.

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