In the past decade, the director Dmitri Tcherniakov has become a tireless champion of the operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. What the conductor Valery Gergiev did before him with an outstanding series of Rimsky recordings for Philips, Tcherniakov is now continuing on the international stage. His production of Sadko, first seen at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow in February 2020, is the latest in a series of stagings in opera houses across Europe that began in 2012 with The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in Amsterdam, and has since taken in The Tsar’s Bride, The Snow Maiden, and The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
Sadko follows on from Tcherniakov’s outstanding Brussels production of Tsar Saltan by giving pictorial elements from the folksy designs that have been traditional in Russian stagings of Rimsky’s operas for more than a century an up-to-date psychological twist. The three protagonists – Sadko, the travelling gusli player, his wife, Lubava, and the daughter of the “king of the sea”, Volkhova, with whom he falls in love – wear modern casual dress, and in Tcherniakov’s version enter a theme park where they interact with the fantasy characters in role play that is intended to cure their hang-ups. The penultimate scene, in which Sadko descends to the depths of the sea, becomes a fantastical parade of imaginary sea creatures, while, finally, Volkhova is not transformed into a river but just picks up her suitcase and goes, leaving Sadko and his wife to start salvaging their marriage.
This treatment preserves the opera’s world of fairytale enchantment, adding an extra layer of seriousness, even if it still can’t disguise some of the dramatic longueurs. It’s all very decently sung, too – Nazhmiddin Mavlyanov is tireless in the title role – though there’s probably a bit more lustre in Rimsky’s scoring than the Bolshoi orchestra finds under Timur Zangiev.
This week’s other pick
Another production to survive the lockdowns was last October’s staging at the Opéra Comique in Paris of Rameau’s first tragédie en musique, Hippolyte et Aricie, now released on DVD and Blu-ray by Naxos. The stylish staging, credited to Jeanne Candel and Lionel Gonzalez, is a busy mix of ancient and modern, and it’s an outstanding show musically. Elsa Benoit as Aricie sets the vocal standard with her gorgeous opening aria; Reinoud van Mechelen’s Hippolyte and Stéphane Degout’s Thésée match her, while the chorus and period band of Pygmalion under Raphaël Pichon are wonderfully committed, too.