Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tale of Czar Saltan

When I bought a ticket for today’s afternoon performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Czar Saltan at the Stanislavsky Opera, I was warned it would be full of children.  The 2 p.m. start time, the fairy tale storyline by Pushkin, and the accessible music by Rimsky-Korsakov would combine to ensure it.  However, from my experience in Moscow, the children who attend such performances are usually very well-behaved and their parents, who probably would not attend the opera if not dragged there by the kids, are the real problem.  I bought the ticket anyway, for the same reason kids would see this opera, plus for the chance to see a rarely-performed opera (usually only known on account of its orchestral suite) in what was supposed to be a good setting.

The audience was indeed about 80-85% children.  Unfortunately, these were not the well-behaved children I’ve seen at other performances, and they had about as much interest in the opera as their parents.  In fact, I suspect that the theater must have been full of kids from the Moscow equivalent of the alternative hippie-inspired elementary school I attended as a child in Philadelphia – with the philosophy to expose children to culture but not to manners, because behaving in public might be too restrictive on their creativity.  In this case, though, there was one discernible difference: the parents of the children were probably not as stoned as the parents (and teachers) of most of the kids at my elementary school.  That makes it worse, because this means there is no way they did not notice that neither they nor their kids wanted to be there – leaving the question as to why exactly they all bought tickets in the first place.

The child of indeterminable sex directly behind me chattered incessantly with its adult minder in a street voice the entire afternoon.  The adult woman to my right spent half the performance on her mobile phone, and for the other half joined her friend and their kids (strewn about in the next several seats) in finding more of interest inside their handbags and attempting to determine the inner workings of the folding theater seats than what was being performed on stage (that is assuming they were even aware that a performance was going on – this was not clear to me).  The rotund kid to my left snored loudly.  Meanwhile, I think middle-school soccer matches periodically broke out on the balcony, since I could hear lots of little feet scurry from one side of the balcony to the other every so often, with intermittent cheers.

From what I could hear of the opera, it was indeed quite nice, and should be performed in front of an audience that might actually want to be there.  The staging, like many at the Stanislavsky, was simple but suggestive, and captured the fairy tale nicely.  Lavish sets are not necessary when the director gives thought to the production.  The orchestra, under Yevgeny Brazhnik, sounded crisp, although the unruly crowds destroyed any mood it might have produced.  What struck me above all, though, were the voices.  The Stanislavsky sent out its A cast, and despite the nonsense their voices had to contend with in the theater, they penetrated the crowd and gave an extravagant portrayal of this opera.

Highlighting the cast was Dmitry Styepanovich, overmatched and not dark enough as the Demon in October, but with a voice much better suited for Czar Saltan.  Mikhail Vekua, the diminutive Georgian who performed Siegmund in the Russian National Orchestra’s production of Walküre last month, presented a lively Prince Gvidon.  Irina Vashchenko and Yevgeniya Afanasyeva gave striking characterizations of Empress Militrisa and of the Swan-Princess, respectively.

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