Think Rimsky-Korsakov and your mind is probably drawn to Scheherazade or the equally colourful works written either side of it: Capriccio espagnol and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. Primarily, Rimsky considered himself an opera composer, composing sixteen of them between 1868 and 1907, yet even in this genre, it’s the orchestral excerpts which are best known.
In Russia, Rimsky’s operas are still part of the repertoire, with regular stagings by the likes of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi companies. In the West, they’re rarer beasts. Covent Garden staged The Tsar’s Bride in 2011, while Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh was a hit at Netherlands Opera. In the past year or so, I’ve seen productions of Le Coq d’Or (Diaghilev’s opera-ballet version) and a charming student production of The Snow Maiden.
To mark Rimsky’s birthday, here are some operatic highlights (and a rare opera-ballet).
The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Based on Pushkin’s fairy tale, this tells the story of a Tsaritsa who is cast into the sea in a barrel by Saltan, who believes his wife has given birth to a monster. The Tsaritsa and her son, Gvidon, land on the island of Buyan. Gvidon rescues a swan from being killed by a kite. The swan transforms into a beautiful princess.
Swan Princess’ aria (Galina Oleinitchenko):
The Swan-Princess helps Gvidoon by changing him into a bumblebee so that he can fly over the sea as a stowaway to face Tsar Saltan.
The Flight of the Bumble-Bee:
The Snow Maiden is another fairy-tale opera, based on Ostrovsky’s play of the same title, dealing with the forces of nature – Father Frost and Mother Spring – whose daughter, the Snow Maiden wants to live among real people. The Berendeyans are in the grip of winter, but when the Snow Maiden eventually finds love, sunlight appears and she melts.
The Snow maiden’s opening aria: (Aida Garifullina at a Rosenblatt Recital)
The Snow maiden’s death scene (Anna Netrebko)
Sadko tells the tale of a minstrel from Novgorod who makes his fortune by catching three golden fish. He wins three ships and decides where to head: three merchants (a Viking, an Indian and a Venetian) sing of their homeland. Sadko plumps for Venice, but of the three, it’s the Song of the Indian Merchant (the Chant hindou) which has become the opera’s most popular number:
Song of the Indian Merchant (Sergei Lemeshev)
Song of the Viking Merchant (Nicolai Ghiaurov)
Song of the Venetian Merchant (Alexander Gergalov)
The Tsar’s Bride
Marfa is chosen as a bride for Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) even though she loves the boyar Lykov. When he his killed, she loses her mind. Some of the best music in the opera is given to the oprichnik Gryaznoy, who lusts after Marfa, and his mistress, Lyubasha.
Duet for Gryaznoy and Lyubasha (Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Olga Borodina)
Lyubasha/ Gryaznoy duet
Lyubasha’s cavatina (Olga Borodina):
Gryaznoy’a aria (Yuri Mazurok):
Drawn from a failed collaboration with his fellow Mighty Handful colleagues, Mlada is a fantastical opera-ballet. One of the most elaborate scenes is a ballet ‘The Night on Mount Triglav’, the centrepiece of which is when Yaromir is shown a vision of Cleopatra!
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh is Rimsky at his most Wagnerian. An epic work, it tells the Pantheistic tale rich in religious and supernatural themes. The maiden Fevroniya lives in a hut in the forest, where Vsevolod, son of the Prince of Kitezh, falls in love with her. Invading Tatars abduct Fevroniya. She prays that the Kitezh will be rendered invisible to save it from attack… and a mysterious fog rises and shrouds the city.
Fevroniya’s Hymn to nature (Elena Prokina):
Le Coq d’Or/ The Golden Cockerel was Rimsky’s final opera and a biting political satire, telling the tale of a bumbling Tsar and his ridiculous foreign policy. In the opera, the astrologer persuades the Tsar that a mechanical cockerel will keep watch over his kingdom, alerting him to danger. The bird warns that the Queen of Shemakha is a danger, so Tsar Dodon sends his sons to do battle. They kill each other on the battlefield, so Dodon sets out to visit the Queen… and falls hopelessly in love with her.
The Queen of Shemakha’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’ is probably Rimsky’s most famous aria… and one of his most luscious:
Happy Birthday, Rimsky!