The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Сказка о царе Салтане in Russian, Skazka o care Saltane in transliteration) is an opera in four acts (six tableaux) with a prologue, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to a Russian libretto by Vladimir Ivanovich Belsky, based on the poem of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin. The full title of both the opera and the poem in English is The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan. The opera was composed in 1899-1900 to coincide with Pushkin's centenary, and first performed at the Solodovnikov Theater, Moscow, 1900.
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. Although the opera itself is rarely performed outside of Russia, the "Flight of the Bumblebee", the opera's most famous interlude, is heard regularly in concert and in recordings, as is the three-movement suite from the opera, first published in 1904 as Opus 57, containing the introductions to Act 1, Act 2 and Act 4, Tableau 2.
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.
Characters and Setting
Boyars, boyarynyas, courtiers, nurses, clerks, guards, army, sailors, astrologers, runners, singers, servant men and women, male and female dancers, and people. Thirty-three bogatyrs of sea with master Chernomor. Squirrel, Bumblebee.
The action takes place partly in the city of Tmutarakan, partly on the island of Buyan (with the city of Ledenets).
Prologue. 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.
Act I. 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. 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.
Act II. 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 sustinence, Gvidon rescues a swan from being killed by a kite. The Swan-Bird in gratitude causes the city of Ledenets to arise magically on the island, and Gvidon is hailed by its inhabitants as its Prince.
Act III, Tableau 1. 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.
Act III, Tableau 2. 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.
Act IV, Tableau 1. 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.
Act IV, Tableau 2. 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 rollicking celebration of the upcoming wedding of Gvidon and the Princess-Swan.
(Note: items in bold face belong to the suite from the opera that the composer extracted for orchestral concert performance.)
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.