Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fairy Tale of Tsar Sultan at Hanover

The man sitting next to me at the Hanover performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Tsar Saltan related how he had recently seen a production of the work given by the Mariinsky Theatre which was traditional and heavy with feudal costumes and jewellery. What we were viewing was “ganz anders”, I remarked. Yet the staging by Eva-Maria Höckmayr and her designers Julia Rösler and Andy Besuch was winning in terms of imagination and intelligence. The experience  began in a museum with the Tsar’s throne and the Tsarina’s dress exhibited behind glass. The chorus – the Russian people – were all seated as if to attend a lecture. Instead they heard a recording of Pushkin’s fairy tale on which the opera was based. So, by this Brechtian device, were we led into the world of Russian culture.

What followed may have been modern in terms of design and deportment, but it did not lack the features of fairy tales, snow falling on the protagonists and videos capturing movement as the ship, carrying the banished Tsarina and her son, rolled on the waves. All the panoply of modern stage technology and some brilliant lighting effects (designer Holger Klede) were deployed to enhance the experience of a benign new world, far removed from the Tsar’s austere and constricting realm.

While not a literal realisation of what was created by Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist Belski, this was certainly faithful to its spirit. As was the musical dimension. The hero of the evening from this perspective was conductor James Hendry who captured all the facets of the composer’s marvellous score, from folk-music inspired melodies, pompously satirical authoritarian marches, and lyrical representations of nature to wistful phrases invoking human emotions. He was ably supported by the Lower Saxony State Orchestra, whose wind section, in particular, impressed.

As regards the singers, pride of place should go to the Tsarina, Barno Ismatullaeva, and her son, José Simerilla Romero. Through her full-voiced laments, she captured the pathos of her frustration but also a world-weary acceptance of her fate. The Argentinian, on the other hand, with his bright assertive and lyrical tenor, conveyed an optimistic belief in the new world, particularly when he encountered the Swan Princess; a convincing portrayal by Sarah Brady, even though the purity of tone was not always there. Pavel Chervinsky, as the Tsar Saltan, lacked weight for the role but there were striking performances by each of the villainesses (Monkia Walerowicz, Beatriz Miranda, Ketevan Chuntishvili), dressed appropriately in vivid red costumes.