Opera-bylina in 7 tableaux
Libretto: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with the assistance of Vladimir Stasov, Vasily Yastrebtsev, Nikolai Shtrup, Nikolai Findeyzen, and Vladimir Belsky
Compiled from the bylina Sadko, the Rich Trader, the Tale of the Sea King and the Wise Vasilisa, The Book of the Dove and other ancient ballads and Russian tales
First performed: Solodovnikov Theatre, Moscow, 7 January 1898 (Old Style 26 December 1897)
Watch: The 1994 performance from the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev, and starring Vladimir Galuzin (Sadko), Marianna Tarasova (Lyubasha), and Valentina Tsidipova (Volkhova).
This beautiful production uses Konstantin Korovin’s set designs from a 1920s production.
You can watch the production here:
Listen: Philips released a CD of the same performance, which is available on the Decca set Rimsky-Korsakov: 5 Operas. The other four operas are Kashchey the Immortal, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, The Maid of Pskov, and The Tsar’s Bride. It’s a terrific bargain – but it doesn’t come with any libretti.
Sadko is easily the best opera I’ve covered so far on this blog—but it may be an acquired taste.
Rimsky-Korsakov, one of classical music’s great orchestrators, casts his spell. For musical imagination and a sense of wonder, it’s stunning – but anyone expecting an opera like Puccini or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will be disappointed. There’s little in the way of psychology or naturalism, but that’s not what Rimsky-Korsakov is interested in here. (Those who want a more dramatically conventional opera should check out The Tsar’s Bride.) He wanted to recreate the world of Russian legends, which are less known in the West. I grew up reading myths and legends, including Russian folktales, so this is home territory for me.
The opera is based on the bylina, the Russian epic poems telling the adventures of heroes – Ilya Muromets, the giant Svyatogor, and Vladimir Bright Sun, Prince of Kiev. They were often performed to calm the sea, which surges and crashes, rises and falls, through this opera from the opening bars.
Sadko is a minstrel who wants to become a merchant trader. He dreams of sailing blue seas and exploring distant lands. Just as Sadko goes in search of new countries, Rimsky-Korsakov searches for new territory.
In each new work of mine, I am trying to do something that is new for me. On the one hand, I am pushed on by the thought that in this way, [my music] will retain freshness and interest, but at the same time I am prompted by my pride to think that many facets, devices, moods, and styles, if not all, should be within my reach.
Sadko is a multi-faceted jewel, glowing with as many hues as the ever-changing, restless sea.
Rimsky-Korsakov paints nature (the sea, meadows, rivers, storms), the supernatural, Sadko’s heroism, and his wife Lyubava’s despair. He travels from the human world – the bustling city of Novogorod, with its guildhouses and piers – to the shores of Lake Ilmen, ships on the sea, and the depths of the ocean, the realm of the Sea King and his daughter Volkhova.
Foreign merchants sing of the wonders of their homelands: Varangia (where the Vikings live), with its surging ocean and craggy cliffs;
the proud trading city of Venice, where the Doge marries the sea each year; and the diamond-studded caves of India, a fabulous land of pearls, sapphires, and phoenixes whose singing makes men forget everything.
The hypnotically lovely Song of the Indian Merchant (once retooled as a jazz hit – and do listen to this orchestral rearrangement) may be the only famous extract, but the whole score is wonderful, mixing Rimskyan instrumental magic with grand opera and Wagnerian symphonic writing.
While Rimsky-Korsakov tried to do something new with each work, the opera reworks a 30-year-old musical tableau (1867, revised 1869 and 1892), which depicts the sea, Sadko’s visit to the Sea King’s court, the dance at the marriage of the King’s daughter, and a wild storm. The composer “used the material of my symphonic poem for this opera, and its motives as leitmotifs for the opera”.
Sadko, like many Russian operas, shows the influence of French grand opera, with its dramatic tableaux, big choral scenes, and ballet. The story reminded me of Meyerbeer’s Africaine (Vasco da Gama); the visionary hero defies the authorities, is rejected, and loves two women, one an exotic princess from a distant realm. Rimsky-Korsakov was justifiably proud of Tableau IV, a scene in a public place (a pier), with the foreign Merchants’ arias and counterpoint choruses of merchants, pilgrims and townsfolk.
The opera is also a response to Wagner. Rimsky attended the first Russian productions of the Ring in 1888–89. He admired Wagner’s orchestration, but detested Wagnerism, “a kind of a cult, a sort of religion in art”, and believed that Wagner corrupted the next generation of Western musicians. (See Muir and Belina-Johnson, Wagner in Russia, Poland and the Czech Lands.)
Like Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own libretti, but to different aesthetic ends. Wagner wrote “myth drama”, sublimating music to drama, and using Norse or German myth and legend to reveal what he thought were universal truths about the human condition. Rimsky-Korsakov emphasized music over drama; he uses music to depict a particular legend (here, the life of a twelfth-century Novogorodian merchant, the creation of the river Volkhova, and the city’s river/maritime trade), but the legend is also a scaffold for the music; the story serves the music.
This isn’t to say that the opera lacks feeling. The small, intimate Tableau 3 focuses on Lyubava, who fears Sadko doesn’t love her. He sails off in Tableau 4; his voyage means freedom, success, and adventure to him, but a living widowhood to her. We’re invited to simultaneously admire Sadko’s courage and sympathise with the wife he deserts.
In the opera, he upbraids the wealthy merchants who hoard gold, rather than trading; the merchants see him as a troublemaker who sides with the down-and-outs; and he wins their goods in a wager and uses them to clothe the poor. He becomes a hero of the people in Aleksandr Ptushko’s excellent 1952 film (winner of the 1953 Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion), which uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s score.
He stirs up the folk, and overthrows the capitalists, who gorge themselves while the poor suffer – but realizes that throwing the merchants’ riches at the poor, and giving them sumptuous clothes, hasn’t helped the genuinely poor: the lame, the aged, the beggars. He vows to trade with the world to benefit his community.
“Go, Sadko, work for the people!”