Judging by a comparison of timings, this is
presumably the same performance that produced the audio recording of the work released on CD
by Philips several years ago. Gergiev and the Kirov Opera have here added most significantly to
their ongoing project of awakening the rest of the world to the vast treasures of Russian opera
that lie beyond the better known Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin, and Ruslan and Lyudmila, for
example. In particular, their CD releases of the operas of Rimsky-Korskaov have been an
exciting chapter in this project, and one can only hope that the present video release is the first
step in the DVD counterpart of that chapter.

Those familiar only with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral works (Scherezade, Russian Easter
Festival Overture, Capriccio Espagnol
) would hardly be surprised by the brilliance of the
orchestral pallet in his operas – except that in the variety and imagination of his scoring he
exceeds in them even the deserved credit for the path-breaking achievements of his concert
works. That his operas should have called forth his best efforts in this regard is certainly
reasonable, as generally they are less true operas than illustrations in sound of scenes from
Russian stories and legends. One searches in vain for gripping drama, vast historical canvases,
or keen psychological insights and character development, possibly one reason that Sadko,
certainly one of the greatest of Rimsky’s fifteen completed operas, is so seldom seen in Western
opera houses. As the composer himself admits in his memoir, My Musical Life, “The folk-life
and the fantastic elements in Sadko do not, by their nature, offer purely dramatic claims” (from
the Joffe translation, New York, 1972).

Of course, an essentially negative description of how Rimsky-Korsakov conceived many of his
operas misses the point. His clear intent was to encapsulate the cultural flavor of Russia
through adapting its stories into episodic sequences of colorful scenes enlivened by atmospheric
music. The subtitle of the present work clearly reflects this intent: a bylina is an epic folk tale,
and the apt term “tableaux” shows clearly that Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking visually rather
than in “acts.” Furthermore, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that musical concerns,
rather than textual details, were uppermost in the composer’s mind, to the extent that an 1867
symphonic poem – Sadko, Op. 5 – provided him with both inspiration and raw musical material
for the opera he completed some thirty years later (the opera was completed in 1896, first
performed in public in 1897). That he remained drawn to this character and his story throughout
this period is demonstrated by the several revisions he made to the original orchestral work prior
to beginning the composition of the opera. Further evidence of symphonic influence lies in the
motivic interconnections that bind together various scenic and character elements in the opera.

Sadko is a work dominated by the sea. The basis of the tale may be summed up by saying that
the hero, Sadko, falls in love with Princess Volkhova, daughter of the Sea King, and, true to her
promise, eventually finds himself in her father’s undersea kingdom where he claims her hand.
On their return to his native Novgorod, she sacrifices herself to become a river, the Volkhov,
which then forms a waterway to the inland city and thus ensures its economic prosperity. It is in
the aural evocation of the sea that Rimsky Korsakov’s masterful use of the orchestra is at its most
brilliant: The Introduction (“The Blue Sea”), the music that introduces Tableau VI in the Sea
King’s palace, and the transformation music as Princess Volkhova becomes the Volkhov River in
Tableau VII are but three of the most engaging examples of the composer’s magical scene
painting. One is hard-pressed not to draw comparisons with his contemporaries, Ravel and
Debussy, comparisons by which Rimsky-Korsakov would hardly come off as second-best. His
expanded harmonic language alone, particularly in these scenes, markedly strengthens the

Conductor Valery Gergiev leads his very capable Kirov Orchestra with great sensitivity to the
colors and textures of these and many other passages in Sadko, and the sound engineers have
created an aural feast worthy of the players’ laudable efforts. In the passages cited above, the
lighting effects, beautifully conceived throughout the work, are especially worth mentioning, as
they complement the “water music” superbly. The set design and costume work likewise fulfill
completely their important roles of establishing the Russian folk atmosphere while also providing
a beautiful and colorful backdrop for the various scenes.

Vocally, a central and very satisfying part of this presentation is that provided by the Kirov Opera
Chorus, which has plenty of opportunity to shine as a virtual protagonist in the various village
scenes. They sing with power, beauty, and excellent ensemble, balancing perfectly the prominent
role of the orchestra. Turning to the soloists, the three merchants, Bulat Minjelkiev, Alexander
Gergalov, and Gegam Grigorian, are each outstanding in their contrasting and memorable
appearances in Tableau IV; Grigorian’s interpretation of the justly famous “Song of India” is
particular noteworthy. Sergei Aleksashkin uses his stentorian and characteristically Russian bass
to good effect as the Sea King. Among the women, gusli-player Nezhata is well-portrayed by
Larissa Diadkova, and Marianna Tarassova gives Sadko’s earth-bound and temporarily jilted
wife Lyubava Buslayevna an appropriately emotional characterization. On the less satisfying
side, Valentina Tsidipova, despite her beautiful if light lyric soprano, lacks the vocal depth to
carry off the role of Princess Volkhova adequately. This brings us to the major disappointment
here, and it is a serious one: tenor Vladimir Galusin in the title role. Admittedly, the demands
on him are heavy and virtually continuous throughout the work, but Galusin rises to them only
occasionally. His voice frequently sounds strained and, on more than one occasion, his
intonation is annoyingly faulty.

On balance, however, even lacking a satisfactory Sadko, this production is so strong and so
satisfying overall that it should immediately find its way into the collection of anyone serious
about Russian opera and especially of anyone who has not yet discovered this repertoire.
Visually and aurally stunning, this production will withstand repeated viewing and thus comes
highly recommended.

Roy J. Guenther
The George Washington University

image_description=Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Sadko
product_title=Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Sadko, opera-bylina in seven tableaux.
product_by=Sadko, Vladimir Galusin; Volkhova, Valentina Tsidipova; Lyubava Buslayevna, Marianna Tarassova; Varangian Merchant, Bulat Minjelkiev; Venetian Merchant, Alexander Gergalov; Indian Merchant, Gegam Grigorian; Sea King, Sergei Aleksashkin; Nezhata, Larissa Diadkova. Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet of the Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev, conductor. Stage Producer, Alexei Stepaniuk; Set Designer, Viacheslav Okunev; Lighting Designer, Valdimir Lukasevich.
product_id=Philips 00440 070 4399 [DVD]