Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) The Tale of Tsar Saltan - an opera in four acts (1900)
Tsar Saltan - Zdravko Kovac (bass)
Tsarina Militrissa - Nada Toncic (sop)
Serene Spinstress - Tatiana Slastenko (mezzo)
Royal Bakeress - Bjanka Decman (sop)
Barbaricha - Mariana Radev (alto)
Tsarevich Gvidon - Janec Lipusek (ten)
Princess Swanhilda - Maria Glavasevic (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zagreb National Opera/Dimitry Zebre
rec. Zagreb, 1956 PRISTINE CLASSICAL PACO120 [2 CDs: 2:35:39]
I must admit straightaway that I don’t know much about The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This Zagreb performance from 1956 is my first encounter with the complete work. This four act opera is to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky and is based on a poem by Pushkin. It was composed in 1899 -1900 to coincide with Pushkin's centenary and was first performed in 1900 in Moscow.
Like many listeners I am very familiar with Rimsky’s orchestral suite and it was intriguing to come across the melodies and themes from the suite as I listened to the complete work. Pristine’s packaging is very basic and there is no libretto or synopsis to aid the listener. Even the individual track-listing fails to mention which character in the opera is singing in each scene. For any newcomers — and I’m one of them — this is a great pity. Putting that to one side, this Pristine reissue is a remarkably good transfer by Andrew Rose taken from the Philips LP set. It was recorded in 1956 and released by Philips in 1960 (A02014-16L). Well received at the time it remains one of only two recordings of the complete opera ever made. The other is a Melodiya production with the Bolshoi Theatre from 1958 (review).
This is a fairy tale opera and Rimsky draws on folk music for some of his inspiration and the score has all the glittering hallmarks of the composer. The orchestration is magnificent and the work is a tuneful delight and very undemanding on the part of the listener. After a lengthy opening Prologue with its instantly recognisable trumpet fanfare, the following Introduction to Act I is immediately familiar as The Tsar’s Farewell and Departure music from the orchestral suite. The Arrival of the Messenger is a delight, with its comical opening aria. There's fine ensemble singing from the soloists and choir supported by sparkling orchestral playing. The act comes to an end with a wonderful scene dominated by Militrissa, sung well by Nada Toncic despite some wobbly vibrato. Act 2 has a sublime opening Introduction, again using some familiar music, The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea from the orchestral suite. Janec Lipusek, in his duet with Militrissa, emerges as a warm-toned tenor with a voice that records very well. Maria Glacasevic is well cast as the swan princess and her singing is unforced and reliable. It’s a shame that during her appearance at the end of Act 2 the orchestral playing lets her down, especially the less than distinguished French horn-player. The conclusion of Act 2 is highly spectacular with its use of the chorus and orchestral forces unleashed to thrilling effect. The opening scene of Act 3 sees the transformation of the prince into a bumblebee. It's delightful to hear Rimsky’s lollipop used in its original context. Zdravko Kovac takes the role of the Tsar - a part of little importance until Act 4. The Introduction to Act 4 scene 2 will also be familiar as The Three Wonders from the orchestral suite.
The sound is clear and clean but lacking any real depth, dynamic range or bass. At no time did the technical aspects of the recording get in the way of the musical enjoyment. The overall balance is fine with the singers being especially well caught and placed well forward of the orchestra which is captured with plenty of detail. It’s only the occasional patches of distortion and congestion that reveal the original vinyl source and give the game away.
This is an opera that is easy to enjoy, even with no libretto or a clear understanding of what is actually going on - Pristine please note. It is crying out for a modern recording but this is a fine performance despite some lapses in the orchestral playing and it should be warmly welcomed. I’m amazed that this opera is so neglected.