SILVER SPRING – “The ocean foamed, and from the white billows rose the visage of the great King of the Sea, crowned in weeds of his watery kingdom,” writes the poet Heine. England, Greece, and even Germany (home to Heine) all have their great poetry of the sea. Such art of the maritime is presented in Russian music in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Sadko,” performed at Silver Spring’s Randolph Road Theatre during performances in March.
Patrick Cook, who played Sadko, the main character, earned his doctorate of Musical Arts at the University of Maryland, College Park, in Prince George’s County, as did Kwang Kyu Lee, who played an outstanding dual role as the King of the Sea and the Varangian Guest.
“Sadko” is a standard operatic work performed in Russia but seldom staged in the United States – in fact, this was perhaps the first staging in the United States since 1930.
Sadko, the namesake of the opera, is the stock of Russian folklore. A musician and merchant as a hero in a fairy-tale setting, Sadko seeks to find the golden fish, which results ultimately in acquiring great wealth and ships to sail off to further adventures. Perhaps the main character is – if not the King of the Sea, who appears dramatically as a decisive character in the fate of Sadko –the sea itself, which propels the narrative. The sea churns in the orchestral color of Rimsky-Korsakov as the arrangements ebb and flow. All this is presented by Bel Cantanti, a company which produces opera locally in simple settings to the modest musical accompaniment, keeping down the budget (and audience prices) for grand opera. Thus, the orchestral swells in this production were achieved with four strings, clarinets, an oboe, a horn, and a keyboard, the latter of which is played by Katerina Souvorova. Souvorova, the producer and artistic director, is ever driven to present Russian operatic masterworks to Washington-area audiences.
This low-key production of “Sadko” had as its major stage settings projections of Russian fairy-tale book illustrations and videos of the surging sea, and these atmospheric visuals worked to best advantage in illustrating the musical billows as well as placing the sea first and foremost in the tale.
Cook as Sadko was an especially engaging presence, singing in a restrained yet impressive way in Russian and with expressions of charming naiveté, rendering the character very likable. This is, after all, a character who would not be sympathetic under ordinary circumstances: Sadko comes home to his wife Lyubava (sung plaintively by Victoria Vita Koreneva), who pines for him. No sooner home, he announces he is off to seek fortune and adventure, giving nary a thought to his wife. He then forgets her entirely as he marries the sea princess Volkhova (Katie Manukyan, in an interpretaive performance combining mimi, singing, and dancing). The characters of a Varangian, Venetian, and Indian Guest each make an appearance, the latter represented by Allan Palacian Chang singing in soft tones the “Song of India,” a famous musical piece which has entered the Western musical repertoire, though the opera has not.
Operas by Tchaikovsky are the Russian ones best known in the U.S., but these are written largely in the Western classical style. Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the “Mighty Handful” of five Russian composers who sought to offer his countrymen a much more Russian-style opera, a tendency everywhere present in “Sadko,” with its blend of Western and much more Eastern harmonies as well as Russian folk dances. The Bel Cantanti’s production accentuated these tendencies, as the reduced chamber-music style accompaniment enhanced the national folk music sound.
Most spectacularly, the company’s costumes were luxuriously and exotically Russian, at odds with the limited budget on display elsewhere in production. Colorful Russian national costumes as well as those of other peoples in proximity to Russia were on display throughout the performance. Such costumes are sometimes at odds with the Russian peasant life of the characters. Sadko’s abandoned wife, for instance, lives in utter poverty in her simple wooden hut. Yet, she is bedecked in a gorgeous golden gown, topped with a regal crown.
All in all, Bel Cantanti opera is a unique experience, giving area audiences an opportunity to see rarely performed operas such as “Sadko” in a highly personal setting. Performed in the modest-sized Randolph Road theater, it is an intimate style of opera, in which characters sing at times between audience aisles and in which the facial expressions of characters can be seen up close. Bel Cantanti does not perform Russian operas exclusively, but taps often into the canonical operatic repertoire, performing “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Donizetti in Italian on May 20, 26, and 27. On the basis of the exquisite performance of “Sadko,” this future production is anticipated eagerly.