The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Russian: Сказка о царе Салтане, Skazka o Tsare Saltane) is an opera in four acts with a prologue, seven scenes, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The libretto was written by Vladimir Belsky, and is based on the poem of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin. The opera was composed in 1899-1900 to coincide with Pushkin's centenary, and was first performed in 1900 in Moscow, Russia.
The lengthy full title of both the opera and the poem is The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan.
Note: The name "Saltan" is often erroneously rendered "Sultan". Likewise, another mistranslation of the Russian title found in English makes this a "legend" rather than simply a "tale" or "fairytale".
The plot of the opera generally follows that of Pushkin's fairy-tale poem, with the addition of some characters, some expansion (particularly for Act 1), and some compression (mostly by reducing Gvidon's three separate trips to one). The libretto by Bel'sky borrows many lines from and largely emulates the style of Pushkin's poem, which is written in couplets of trochaic tetrameter. The music is composed in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas after Snowmaiden, i.e., having a more or less continuous musical texture throughout a tableau (as with Wagner, but with the exception of the separable orchestral introductions mentioned above) and a fairly thorough-going leitmotif system, broken up here and there by song-like passages.
The première was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre conducted by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov with scenic design by Mikhail Vrubel.
The St. Petersburg premiere took place in 1902 at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, conducted by Zelyonïy.
Other notable performances included those in 1906 at the Zimin Opera, Moscow, conducted by Ippolitov-Ivanov; 1913 at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow, conducted by Emil Cooper, with scenic design by Konstantin Korovin; and 1915 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, conducted by Albert Coates, with scenic design by Korovin and Aleksandr Golovin.
On September 14 [O.S. September 1] 1911, while he was attending a performance of the opera at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of the Tsar and his family, the Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin was shot twice, once in the arm and once in the chest, dying two days later; his assassin, Dmitri Bogrov, was both a leftist radical and an agent of the Okhrana.
Moscow 3 November 1900 (O.S. 21 October),
(Conductor: Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov)
St. Petersburg 1902
|Tsar Saltan (Saltán)
|Tkachikha (Weaver), middle sister
|Povarikha (Cook), older sister
|Babarikha (Old Woman), an in-law
|Tsarevich Gvidon (Gvidón)
||Yelena Stepanova, Antonina Nezhdanova
|Chorus, silent roles: Voices of a sorcerer and spirits, Boyars, boyarïnyas, courtiers, nurses, clerks, guards, soldiers, sailors, astrologers, runners, singers, servant men and women, male and female dancers, and people, Thirty-three knights of the sea with master Chernomor, Squirrel, Bumblebee.
- Time: Unspecified
- Place: Partly in the city of Tmutarakan and partly on the island of Buyan
On a wintry evening three sisters are sitting at spinning wheels. As Tsar Saltan overhears from outside the door, the oldest sister boasts that, if she were Tsaritsa, she would prepare a sumptuous feast; the middle sister would weave a grand linen; the youngest promises to bear a bogatyr as son for the Tsar. Saltan enters, chooses the third sister to be his bride, and takes her away. The old woman Babarikha devises a revenge for the two jealous older sisters: when the Tsar is away at war, a message will be sent to him that the child born to his Tsaritsa is not human, but a monster.
The Tsar's departure and farewell, by the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin
(1905), corresponds to the Introduction to Act 1, and the first movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's suite from the opera (1903).
The Tsar has gone off to war. In his palace in Tmutarakan, the Tsaritsa has given birth to a son. She is despondent: there is no reply from her husband to the news of the birth of their child. Her sisters, who (with Babarikha) are now part of the court, the older sister as Cook, and the middle sister as Weaver, try to entertain her, as does the skomorokh and the Old Grandfather. They replace the message of the Tsaritsa by another one,which says that she has borne neither a daughter nor a son, neither a mouse nor a frog, but a kind of beast (monster). But all this is to no avail. The young Tsarevich, who has been lulled to sleep during this scene, awakens and runs about, accompanied by his nurses, and the people wish God's blessings upon him. Then a messenger stumbles in (he has been waylaid with drink by Babarikha). His message from the Tsar is read by the scribes: the Tsaritsa and her progeny must be placed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. Reluctantly the people carry out the Tsar's command.
The Tsaritsa and her son afloat in the barrel, by Bilibin, corresponds to the Introduction to Act 2, and the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's suite from the opera.
The Tsaritsa and her son Gvidon have landed on the island of Buyan and broken out of the barrel that they were trapped in. Gvidon has grown remarkably rapidly into a young man. In the course of searching for sustinance, Gvidon rescues a swan from being killed by a kite. The Swan-Bird in gratitude causes the city of Ledenets (Russian: Леденец) to arise magically on the island, and Gvidon is hailed by its inhabitants as its Prince.
By the shore of Buyan, the merchant ships have left, and Gvidon laments his being separated from his father. The Swan-Bird finds a way to help him: she changes him into a bumblebee so that he can fly over the sea as a stowaway on Saltan's ship to visit him incognito in Tmutarakan.
The sailors arrive at Tmukarakan from their visit to Buyan. The sailors tell of the wonders of Gvidon's island (the magically appearing city itself, a magic squirrel, and the thirty-three bogatyrs from the sea), but the two older sisters try to stop them from creating any interest in Saltan's visiting the island; Gvidon stings each of the sisters in the brow. Babarikha then tries to trump the sailors by speaking of a fabulous Princess on the sea, to which Gvidon stings her in the eye and blinds her. Saltan decides to visit the island, but, in view of the havoc caused by the bumblebee, forbids that breed of insect from ever entering the palace again.
Chernomor and the thirty-three bogatīrs, by Bilibin, corresponds to the Introduction to Act 4, Scene 2, and to second of the "Three Wonders" depicted in the third movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's suite.
Gvidon, again by the seashore of Buyan, longs for a bride. The Swan-Bird appears. Gvidon tells her of the Princess that he heard about at Tmutarakan, and the Swan-Bird transforms into that very Princess. His mother and a chorus of maidens enter and bless the prospect of their wedding.
Gvidon, with his mother aside, awaits the arrival of Saltan. When the ship arrives with Saltan and his retinue, the Tsar greets Gvidon (whom he does not yet know as his son), and expresses regret for his rash treatment of his wife. Although Gvidon tries to cheer him up with the three wonders, only the presence of Militrisa can assuage Saltan's guilt. The Princess-Swan appears and reveals the Tsar's long-lost wife. The older sisters beg forgiveness, which in his happiness Saltan grants; and everyone then joins in a celebration of the upcoming wedding of Gvidon and the Princess-Swan.
Gallery of illustrations
Ivan Bilibin made the following illustrations for Pushkin's tale in 1905. Bilibin would later provide designs for the premieres of Rimsky-Korsakov's version of Boris Godunov (1908), and The Golden Cockerel (1909). The "Flight of the mosquito" episode was not included in the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov (nor that of the fly) for the sake of brevity, but Bilibin's illustration otherwise corresponds to the "Flight of the Bumblebee" from Act 3.
Tsar Saltan at the window (Prologue)
The island of Buyan (Act 2)
The Merchants visit Tsar Saltan (Act 3)
Principal arias and numbers
- Introduction–"The Tsar's Departure And Farewell"
- Introduction–"The Tsaritsa and Her Son Afloat in the Barrel"
- "Flight of the Bumblebee"
- Introduction to Scene 2–"The Three Wonders"
- Saltan's aria
The Tale of Tsar Saltan is not part of the standard operatic repertoire in the West. The latest production in the United States was probably that at Indiana University in April 1987, in English.
- Suite from the Opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Op. 57 (1903)
- Сюита из оперы Сказка о царе Салтане, соч. 57
- Introduction to Act I -- "The Tsar's Departure And Farewell"
- Introduction to Act II -- "The Tsaritsa and Her Son Afloat in the Barrel"
- Introduction to Act IV, Tableau 2 -- "The Three Wonders" («Три чуда»)
- The "Flight of the Bumblebee" is also performed in countless arrangements at concerts and recitals, but is not part of the Suite.
Audio Recordings (Mainly studio recordings)
- 1959, Vasily Nebolsin (conductor), Bolshoy Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, Ivan Petrov (Tsar Saltan), Evgeniya Smolenskaya (Tsaritsa Militrisa), Larisa Nikitina (Tkachikha), Yelizaveta Shumilova (Povarikha), Evgeniya Verbitskaya (Babarikha), Vladimir Ivanovsky (Tsarevich Gvidon), Galina Oleinichenko (Tsarevna Swan-bird)
- Abraham, Gerald (1939). "IX.-- Tsar Saltan" (in English). On Russian Music. London: William Reeves / The New Temple Press. pp. 122–137.
- Neff, Lyle. "The Tale of Tsar Saltan: A Centenary Appreciation of Rimskij-Korsakov's Second Puškin Opera," in The Pushkin Review, v. 2, 1999, pp. 89-133.