‘Suddenly, before Guidon Swam the graceful snow-white swan’*


The Tale of Tsar Saltan is the fairest fairy tale among the others by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Situations happening to its heroes are resolved with happy end for everyone; even villains receive forgiveness; the most important thing, though, nobody dies (which is so rare in romantic operas!). The only exception is ‘wizard’- kite: he appears for a minute in the second act and immediately perishes by ‘tsarevich’ (prince in English) Guidon’s arrow – following the plot of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.

Wonderfully written libretto full of musical ‘wonders’ by Vladimir Belsky and score by Rimsky-Korsakov were already highly appraised during premiere. First production belonged to Private Opera Society (1900). Opera performance became legendary due to scenic design by Mikhail Vrubel and ‘mysterious look of unforgettable Tsarevna’ (in English, princess; referred to Tsarevna Swan-Bird) that created artist’s wife Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel.

Success went further on leading to performance on imperial stage; however, it took quite some time: opera was included in the Bolshoi’s repertoire only in 1913. Symphonic compositions were well matched with scenic design by Konstantin Korovin. Brilliant cast including bass by Grigory Pirogov (Tsar Saltan), soprano by Leonida Balanovskaya (Tsaritsa Militrisa) and Elena Stepanova (Tsarevna Swan-Bird). Later on, Xenia Derzhinskaya got a role of Militrisa, and Antonina Nezhdanova of Swan-Bird, performed on The Bolshoi Theatre stage. It was known it was their favorite roles that they kept in their repertoire for decades. After the Bolshoi, this opera survived two more revivals – in 1959 and 1986. The latter was there until 1989. It is completely evident, now is the right time for the fourth one.

Tsar Saltan. Rep1. by Damir Yusupov.jpg
Director Alexei Frandetti. Photo by Damir Yusupov.

By how much are we breaking the tradition or keeping it, director Alexei Frandetti will let us know.

"Three fair maidens, late one night/ Sat and spun by candlelight..." and so on. These words, known by heart from childhood, is like a literary formula. We are so used to it that we do not even look into the actual meaning. What is it of the most importance for you in The Tale of Tsar Sultan?

Each of us wants to love and be loved. As common as it sounds. This thought prevails in this opera too. This is a story of what incomplete family is, and what definition of family is in general. About how important family is for every individual no matter whether he is still young or adult.

Perception of The Tale of Tsar Saltan comes from familiar visual line: Tsarevna Swan-Bird by Vrubel, set design by Korovin, Golovin, illustrations by Bilibin...Did you try to distance from it?

We stage classical Russian opera. Beautiful decorations are made by Zinovy Margolin; mainly historical costumes – by Viktoria Sevryukova. Performance itself is quite traditional; at least first act for sure. Then, various upside down and unique things come into place. Through the beauty of set, costumes and light, I hope, we are able to get our word out of what we aimed to express. However, in this sense, our task is much more difficult than the one that our colleagues have. They can simply dress opera up in contemporary clothing and will present a new problem more prominent.

What meaning do you put in your characters?

We do not invent anything on the top of what is should be, we just carefully read poem. We have determined that this story is relevant. Tsaritsa Militrisa is down to earth. She has real and simple pleasures: ‘I would give our tsar an heir…’ Tsarevna Swan-Bird is totally different; she is like in The Seagull by Chekhov – ‘soul of the world’. Why can we constantly hear sadness in the music of Swan-Bird? We can imagine the following fantasy: world soul embodied in physical body. At the beginning of relations with Guidon, she knows already the finale. She will live forever while tsareviches are all mortal, and she will have to bury them one after another. Actually all heroes of this fairy tale are real, besides Tsarevna Swan-Bird – with real motivations and gestures. During each rehearsal, I keep saying: guys, don’t act like it’s a fairy tale.

Still, there are some marvels and moments when it is hard to apply regular logic, apart from Tsarevna Swan-Bird appearance…

Of course. Take for instance main tragic event: young woman with child is shoved into the barrel in front of the whole city. So she is executed in the public eye.

"Have the queen and have her spawn/ Drowned in secret ere the dawn". Why, in your opinion, does it happen?

It happens same way as anything in our country: superior points out – people start carrying out without giving too much thought whether it is scary or necessary or not… But Matchmaker-Crone Babarikha takes the lead. She is enchanted. God forbids, she does not mean to draw similarities with Baba Yaga (a famous old witch in Russian fairy tales who spooked children), rather similar to Azucena, Ulrica. She strives for power. In fact, The Tale of Tsar Saltan is feminist opera. Women take all initiatives – Babarikha and sisters. Tsar has no will power, he is weak. Like in Macbeth, where strong woman is behind ruler’s back who navigates through his actions despite his will.

Tsar Saltan. Rep2. by Damir Yusupov.jpg
Olga Seliverdtova (Tsaritsa Militrisa) and Alexei Frandetti. Photo by Damir Yusupov.

Can we take children to see performance as well?

This is a family performance. Russian Lion King. Why this cartoon is ingenious? In my opinion, there are two clear groups – for children and for adults. Same here. And I think we did a great job differentiating these two groups. I’d like my performance to attract both audiences – adults and children. That is why we have incorporated circus run by Evgeny Shevtsov and Olga Poltorak (loads of stunts, decorations are quite complex). Continuous actions are required to happen every three minutes otherwise we will not retain the attention of a young viewer. There is one important plot-forming fragment in opera, although not so extensive – kite and swan fight. We designed our water out of air that is filling whole stage space. A very cool and professional team of artists from Circus on Vernandskogo works with us, they are literally our co-authors.

Sergei Eisenstein comes to mind when he staged Die Walküre at The Bolshoi Theatre, same, with flights in the air. Some artists refused to take part in performance...  

Girls-sopranos who are singing Tsarevna Swan-Bird part were frightened at first. They had to be really up high for the most part of performance. We did test runs, showed them how it all works. At the end of test drive, they used to it that much that they were even saying: “Flying in the air is same as walking”. It should be this way. Swan is a bird; it is either flying or swimming. Least of all I would want to see an artist in white kokoshnik (traditional Russian headdress) who would walk down the stage and flaps her arms. It is 2019 outside after all!

Interviewed by Olesya Bobrik

Translated by Anna Muraveva.

The premiere series of shows will be held on 26, 27, 28 (starting at 12:00 & 19:00) and 29 of September.
The Сast.
Conductor: Bolshoi Theatre Chief Conductor - Music Director Tugan Sokhiev.

* Alexander Pushkin. The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son, the Glorious and Mighty Knight Prince Guidon Saltonovich, and of the Fair Swan-Princess.