On coming out of the theatre it was tempting to do a double-take at the sight of a number 38 bus on the other side of the road. Surely it should have been a coach and horses after the evening of opera we had just witnessed? It felt as if we had gone back generations.
On its many visits to London the Mariinsky Opera has brought various operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, but not previously The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The double cast, large orchestra and chorus must have made this an expensive opera to tour, even alongside performances by the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet, so heaven knows how the company gets the figures to add up.
It is probably helpful to assure people who have not been to the opera in St Petersburg that not all productions there are as old-fashioned as this one. Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale about the young prince who is turned into a bumble-bee so that he can spy on his long-lost father is as naive as they come – even a cutting-edge western director would be hard pushed to find a Freudian subtext – and Alexander Petrov’s staging treated it at face value.
The result made my childhood pantomimes seem avant-garde. The sets were an infant’s miniature toytown writ large – the magical city of Ledenets rose from the waters like a giant blancmange in a sea of green custard – and one imagined the wardrobe mistress running amok through the Winter Palace tearing down brocade curtains to make all the costumes.
By the exalted standards of the Mariinsky Opera the cast was rather average. The most appealing voice was the dulcet-toned high soprano of Lyudmila Dudinova as the Swan Princess, though she did not always sing in tune. Daniil Shtoda’s light tenor suited shy Prince Guidon, who has to check with his mum before he accepts the crown. Victoria Yastrebova played his mother and Alexey Tannovitsky was the firm-voiced Tsar Saltan.
The two elements that were unquestionably of the top international standard were the outstanding playing of the Mariinsky orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev, who flew brilliantly through the famous “Flight of the Bumblebee”, and the impeccable Mariinsky Chorus. It is extraordinary to think the cast came all this way for two performances and then buzzed off back to St Petersburg.
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