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Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Sadko - opera-bylina in seven tableaux (1898)
Sadko - Georgy Nelepp (ten)
Volkhova - Elisabeta Shumskaya (sop)
Lyubava - Valentina Davidova (mezzo)
Nezhata - E Antonova (alto)
The Sea King - S Krasovsky (bass)
Duda - S Koltypin (bass)
Sopel - A Peregudov (ten)
First City Elder - T Chernyakov (ten)
Second City Elder - S Nikolau (bass)
Viking Merchant - Mark Reizen (bass)
Venetian Merchant - Ivan Kozlovsky (ten)
Apparition - Pavel Lisitsian
Minstrels, Jesters, Soothsayers, Wandering Pilgrims
Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Nikolai Golovanov
rec. 1950, USSR, from Melodiya D-01480-87. AAD. mono
PREISER 90655 [52:17 + 54:36 + 59:51]


Preiser's mission to reissue vocal historicals smacks of an incongruous blend of professional zealotry and bargain basement corner cutting. Choice of material and processing is unerring but design and documentation can be spartan.

In the present case there is no libretto. Instead we get a two page synopsis supplemented by a track by track listing. Tracking is, by the way, pretty thorough: CD1: 12, tableaux I-II; CD2: 10, tableaux III-IV; CD3: 14 tableaux, V-VII.

This ex-Melodiya set has a classic Bolshoi cast with stars caught in their high noon or at least rising elevens. Nelepp, Shumskaya, Lisitsian and Reizen are names to conjure with. They are pictured on p. 7 of the booklet. Their voices here are consonant with their reputations which, rather than representing a Soviet tradition, carry the legacy of the Russian Imperial Opera.

Rimsky wrote this Sadko after completing Christmas Eve. It was premiered at the private opera house of Savva Mamontov (a millionaire merchant) when Rimsky fell out with Napravnik at the Mariinsky.

The plot: At Novgorod's merchant guild Sadko the minstrel sings a song of his fantasy of sailing a fleet of ships around the world. Sadko is next seen asleep alongside Lake Ilmen where he is approached by white swans who are in fact the transformed female court of the sea king. They include Princess Volkhova who falls for Sadko and makes a gift to him of three golden fish. Sadko returns to his wife Lyubava who grieves, when confused by his magical encounter, Sadko becomes cold towards her. In a bustle of people at Novgorod pier Sadko claims he can catch fish of gold in Lake Ilmen and proceeds to do so. Having had a wager on his own success he buys a massive fleet of ships to live out his fantasy. The money is from the various dockside merchants: Viking, Hindu and Venetian. He takes his winnings, gives them back their goods and sets sail. Move twelve years forwards and you find Sadko becalmed in a still ocean. He draws lots with his mates and drawing the short straw dives into the sea to drown. In fact he is taken to the court of the Sea King where he sings of the beauties of the ocean. The Sea King is won over and gives the hand of his daughter to Sadko. She is to become a river and he is to be restored to his home. A shellfish carries the two to their fate. Arriving at land the Princess becomes a great river as ordained. Sadko is joyously reunited with his wife and the long-lost fleet of ships return home sailing the river that was once Princess Volkhova. The opera is in the nature of a grand cavalcade, a grownup fairytale or pantomime. It is part of a Rimskian genre that also includes The Golden Cockerel and Kitezh.

To the present Russian version. Nelepp's If I had a hoard of gold (CD1 tr. 5) is ringingly warm though he is more baritone than tenor. Then again Shumskaya sings with a lovely buoyant Callas-like grace in Deep depths ... (CD3 tr. 4) but is darker and with more chesty vibrato in the exposed solo Terrible broad blue sea (CD3 tr. 5). Reizen gets his moment as Viking Merchant in On the terrible rocks .... (CD2 tr. 6). Davidova as Lyubava has the benefit of the passionate return aria in Greetings, welcome home my beloved husband (CD3 tr. 13)

The orchestra are never merely time-serving in this work and recording. For example their silvery chatter at the start of Innumerable are the diamonds ... (CD2 tr. 7) and the magnificently towering blare of the brass in the preface to Ah you have not danced and My dearest one ... (CD3 trs. 9 and 10). The oboe solo at the start of Krasovsky's irresistible sleep-invoking cantabile Strike up your ringing gusli reminds us how indebted the young Arnold Bax - in Spring Fire and in The Garden of Fand - was to the experience of seeing the Rimsky operas. Try also the Deep depths track CD3 tr. 4). The woodwind at 'tis the celestial height ... (CD2 tr. 10) are a further reminder of the indebtedness of Rimsky to Borodin.

Golovanov is another star in this little firmament and it is down to his heady tempi that the wild dance that ends Tableau 1 is as abandoned as it is (CD1 tr. 7). This famously volatile conductor pushes everyone to the limit in In Great Novgorod there lives a simpleton. It's a rollicking and breathtaking massed choral scene.

In Tableau 2 we are transported from the lavish guild mansion in Novgorod to the shores of Lake Ilmen. The ringing stability and strength of Nelepp's baritone makes listening to him a joy even without the benefit of knowing exactly what he is singing. His melismatic song is hemmed about with enchanting orchestral effects: the skald's harp ostinato, the welling nobility of the orchestral introduction and impressionistic flurries of the lake's watery depths.

A typically generous and joy-filled melody can be heard in Sadko's Round Song (CD1 tr. 10) - unmistakably Rimskian treatment around a quick-kicking song for Nelepp. Further examples are not in short supply - try City of Stone, mother of all cities (CD2 (tr. 8) and Is that singing? (CD3 tr. 3).

A sinister orchestral storm prefaces bass Sergei Krasovsky's aria The moon, golden-horned, wanes ... and one can look to the section at 1:28 (tr. 12 CD1) for yet another influence of the teacher on Stravinsky the pupil. It was not only in Kastchei the Immortal that Rimsky's brilliance imprinted on Stravinsky's The Firebird or First Symphony. You hear other intimations of The Firebird at the start of Tableau III (CD2 tr. 1).

I must not forget the Bolshoi chorus who are much in evidence and not only in thunderous choral moments but also in breathtaking steady smooth quiet singing in the decrescendo just after the Shumskaya's solo in I bow to you ... (CD2 tr. 4).

While the original recording is more than half a century old it sounds quite respectable. It is almost certainly from a nicely scrubbed LPs set - at least going by the evidence of a small cluster of clicks at 3:30 in tr. 12 CD1. Preiser have scrubbed up busy surfaces and repaired pock damage. They present the ear with a better than tolerable sound experience.

Alternative recordings are not numerous. There is however the Kirov-based Gergiev on Philips from 1993. I have not heard it but it is bound to have all the advantages of a modern digital version. I doubt however that the singing will better that which can be heard here. As for Golovanov he is an unruly Prospero of a musician who rather like Stokowski and Beecham rejected the commonplace and found real allure.

As an insight into the most exalted Bolshoi standards as well as a wonderful presentation of one of Rimsky's most supernatural fantasy operas this takes some beating.

Rob Barnett


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