[Met Performance] CID:104190

United States Premiere, New Production

Metropolitan Opera House, Sat, January 25, 1930 Matinee

In French

Sadko (1)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov | Vladimir Stasov
Edward Johnson

Editha Fleischer

Czar of the Ocean
Pavel Ludikar

Ina Bourskaya

Gladys Swarthout

Max Altglass

Joseph Macpherson

Louis D'Angelo

Angelo Badà

Viking Guest
William Gustafson

Hindu Guest
Rafaelo Díaz

Venetian Guest
Mario Basiola

Philine Falco

Pearl Besuner

George Cehanovsky

Tullio Serafin

Ernst Lert

Serge Soudeikine

August Berger

Rosina Galli

Translation by unknown
Sadko received eleven performances this season.

Review 1:

Review in Musical America, unsigned, but probably Oscar Thompson

'SADKO' Exerts Lure of Fantastic Spectacle at American Première


Russian Opera Achieves Brilliant Success as Spectacle at Its American Premiere -- Music Is Melodious and Beautifully Orchestrated, but in Performance Proves Second in Interest to Elaborate Mounting and Spectacular Underseas Ballet

Twenty thousand leagues of bylina under the sea might be a description of "Sadko," the fantastic opera by Rimsky-Korsakoff which was accorded its American premiere at the Metropolitan the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 25. As spectacle it was one of the most elaborate and impressive of the many novelties mounted at the opera during the regime of Giulio Gatti-Casazza and the eye-minded were madly approbative. More than Rimsky-Korsakoff's, the day was Mr. Gatti's, for this was the production that stirred enthusiasm beyond that engendered by the music, Serge Soudeikine's, for his were the sets, and Rosina Galli's, for hers were the dance pictures that gave life to episodes which depended on visual movement rather than dramatic situations to awaken and hold interest. In spite of an antiquated and unmechanized stage, the audience was rewarded with a versicolorous fantasy of splendor and enchantment, in which the music was quite generally secondary and in which successive tableaux were like so many paintings brought to life. Yet spectacle aside, beautiful music is plentiful in "Sadko," beautiful chiefly because of the imagination and the versatile mastery with which it is orchestrated. But it keeps company with much tedious recitative - the much-bruited bylina parlando - and for Western audiences its narrational, processional style might result speedily in boredom were the spectacle any less rewarding than Mr. Gatti-Casazza has made it.

Not all the devotion Tullio Serafin could have brought to his exposition of the chameleonic orchestral score, spun now of gossamer, now of gleaming gold, or again passing through irisated delicacies to clarion sonorities, could have held interest through these leagues of epic bylina if the spectacle had failed.

The "Song of India" and its companion set numbers would not have saved an opera so obviously suffering, as most Russian operas carried into the Western world have suffered, for want of cumulative drama. Rimsky shared with Borodin and others of the school his addiction to narrative and to processions, his substitution of pageant for play. "Prince Igor" was a beautiful work, but its lack of drama defeated it at the Metropolitan. "Boris Godounoff" alone held on. And "Boris" was neither narrative nor pageant, but drama. The Russians arrived too late to substitute their processional conventions for the equally artificial ones which for centuries had been accepted in the opera of the Italians.

A Scenic Phantasmagoria

The Soudeikine sets were redolent of Muscovy and readily adaptable to the mechanical exigencies of the production. A special curtain, suggesting a mosaic, pictured the ships of Sadko, the sea king and his daughter, and the saint who represented religion in the combat with paganism. The banquet hall of the merchants of Novgorod was a carnival of color, with its prodigious feast, its dancing buffoons, and its singing gusli players. Succeeding this was a dreaming, misty, nocturnal landscape on the shores of Lake Ilmen, where swans swam into view and were converted into the sea princess and her attendants. A rough Russian interior sufficed for the home of Sadko and his neglected, grieving wife. The famous spectacle of the fair at Novgorod was scenically as splendid as anything in the opera, with its view of ships at the quays and the towered city in background, but the stage was too crowded for pictorial effect. Here were sung the songs of Norway, India and Venice, here the miracle of the golden fish was wrought, and here were seen Sadko's ships moving out to sea as the curtains closed.

The mechanical problems of showing Sadko's ship at sea were met with an unusual measure of success. Resembling some fantastic old print the ship moved through a rippling simulation water of delectable sheen, to mid-stage where it was becalmed while the others of the fleet vanished from sight, carried on by the winds that had failed Sadko. When lowered into the waves as a proprietary offering to the sea king, a transformation brought him to the bottom of the sea for the most elaborate of the tableaux of this phantasmagoria.

The depths were the palace of the Sea King. The Princess of the Sea brought Sadko to the royal palace as gay colored fish swam by - a camera projection above the heads of the personages on the ocean's floor. Sadko's singing and gusli playing set the sea-world dancing. The Waves and Brooks danced, not unlike so many coryphees. There was a Dance of the Fishes, in which legs as well as fins were strangely discernible; then a dance of Denizens of the Sea, strange monsters on foot and on rollers, that must be left undescribed here. Again the music became an accompaniment for a vertiginous whirl, ending abruptly with the sudden entrance of the Saint pictured on the curtain. Sadko and his Princess were sent honeymooning to the upper world. All was desolation in the depths.

Music had the upper hand briefly in the final tableau, as the Sea Princess sang her farewell to the sleeping Sadko, once more on the solid, vernal earth. Weeping torrentially, she became a river - the River Volkhova that now joins Lake Ilmen with the sea - and not only had the score to compete with so miraculous a circumstance as water running and gleaming where no water had been before, but water running defiantly up hill! This and the early circumstance of the sun rising into a sky where the moon had remained stationary, and continued to remain, can be dismissed as poetic or scene painter's license. After all, this was a fairy tale. Sadko's ship completed the spectacle by sailing up the river, and again there was reason to suspect that the mechanics of it won more admiration than Rimsky's highly ingenious writing.

Cliches and Remembrances

Yet, highly ingenious as it is, and enchanting as the scoring remains after three decades of orchestral experimentation, this is music filled with cliches, as well as of remembrances. It is the music of a vastly proficient technician rather than of a man of seminal, creative power. It is at its best when it builds imaginatively about some Russian folk tune, and at its worst when it unblushingly imitates the banalities of Italian or French opera. But even in his choice of folk material, Rimsky managed to find some remarkably insipid specimens. How different his outlook from that of Moussorgsky may be discovered in his own professional confession that he wrote the first scene of the second act, that of the young wife's lament, as an afterthought because he found he had neglected to compose anything in the key of F Minor - a pundit's consideration that never would have troubled Moussorgsky.

Vocally, Saturday's performance was an acceptable one, if scarcely more than that. Edward Johnson was pictorial, but more the gallant Romeo of a perfumed French opera than the bold navigator of this ancient Russian myth. Editha Fleischer brought to the music of Volkhova, the Sea Princess, a voluptuous quality of tone never previously associated with her, artful as have been some of her impersonations. She was easily the most satisfactory of the principals. Ina Bourskaya, the one Russian in the cast, though not always musical of tone, was commendable as Lioubava, the wife. Gladys Swarthout did what she could to make interesting the dull lays of Niejata, the gusli player. The songs of Norway, India and Venice were not vocally all that heart could wish, as projected by William Gustafson, Rafaelo Diaz and Mario Basiola, though the first of the three looked well and the second contrived to create atmosphere. Surely there are baritones in the company who can treat the Venetian claptrap as it is, lyrically, and with some definitive pitch. Of the other characters, there is no need to do more than mention that they were in the hands of Max Altglass, Joseph Macpherson, Louis d'Angelo, Angelo Bada, Philine Falco, Pearl Besuner, Pavel Ludikar and George Cehanovsky. Mr. Serafin labored heroically with his orchestra and it played smoothly and well. Yet, as in Stravinsky's "Petrushka," the Serafin performance lacked something in rhythmic sting, as if the Italian conductor smoothed over and refined too much the Russian accentuation of phrase. The use of the French text was even more largely responsible for a loss of Slavic atmosphere in the music. Only praise is to be given the stage management of Ernst Lert, much as one might have wished for a less conventional grouping of the chorus in the Novgorod Fair scene. Miss Galli's elaborate ballet was the life of the underseas scene. The Dance of the Buffoons and the finale of the first tableau must be credited to August Berger.

Review 2:

Review by W.J. Henderson in the New York Sun

Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Sadko," produced at the Metropolitan Opera House Saturday afternoon, revealed to a voluminous and avid audience one of those sumptuous spectacles for which Giulio Gatti-Casazza is famous. There was also music, which in a spectacular opera still demands some consideration. Report that the score contained much recitative and little extended lyric utterance was discredited. Unfortunately the lyric passages were in themselves mostly of small charm. One slow tempo after another, melancholy moods, and absence of a climax mark many, if not all, of the solo scenes. Fundamentally the defects of the music, which are also its merits, lie in its uncompromising nationalism. Tonalities and rhythms are those which we have heard over and over in the creations of the builders of the Russian nationalistic school. The incessant use of the short phrase mercilessly reiterated, which is the melodic pattern of too many Russian folk songs, becomes tiresome before the opera is half over. Yet what else could a Russian do with a Russian legend?

Rimsky-Korsakoff was a master of orchestration. The instrumental portion of "Sadko" is beautifully made. There are a hundred details to interest the music lover who takes note of such matters, but we are somewhat skeptical as to their influence upon the typical operagoer. Naturally there was a large cast. Mr. Johnson labored manfully with the music of Sadko. He won much applause and deserved much sympathy. But the interest of the afternoon was centered in the pictures, the dances, and the ensembles. Katisha had a left shoulder blade which people went miles to see.

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