Look at it from the point of view of the child. The father he's never met sentences him and his mother to be nailed into a barrel and tossed into the sea. When the barrel smashes to smithereens, both somehow survive, washing up on a strange island where the boy saves a talking swan. No wonder he's screwed up. It's this angle Dmitri Tcherniakov chooses to pursue in his staging of The Tale of Tsar Saltan for La Monnaie, framing Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy tale opera with a modern parable where a mother narrates stories for her autistic son.

Svetlana Aksenova (Militrisa) and Bogdan Volkov (Gvidon) © Forster
Svetlana Aksenova (Militrisa) and Bogdan Volkov (Gvidon)
© Forster

“Only fairy tales are real to him,” Militrisa explains to the audience in a spoken prologue. Gvidon plays with his toys: a squirrel, a set of toy soldiers and a doll of a swan princess (the Three Wonders of Act 4). He lives a largely silent world; the only person he will communicate with is his mother. As she begins her story – their own story – characters appear dressed in cartoon-style costumes which reference Ivan Bilibin's 1905 illustrations of Pushkin's story. Gvidon watches as his aunties plot against his mother, sending a message to Tsar Saltan – who is away at war – that his young wife has given birth not to a son, but to a monster. When the (falsified) decree arrives, a barrel is constructed around Militrisa and her baby and it's only at this point that the frontcloth rises and Tcherniakov's video designer, Gleb Filshtinsky, gets to play.

Svetlana Aksenova (Militrisa) and chorus © Forster
Svetlana Aksenova (Militrisa) and chorus
© Forster

Animated sketches depict the barrel riding the swell of the waves in Rimsky's groaning seascape (the composer's naval career informed his writing in works such as this and Scheherazade and Sadko). On the Island of Buyan, we see Gvidon fashion a bow and arrow and save a swan from the clutches of an eagle's talons. When the swan appears, Olga Kulchynska reclines in the middle of a pencil sketch which is gradually coloured in during her gorgeous aria while the real Gvidon plays with his doll. Most movingly, Gvidon's imagination comes alive during the end of Act 2, and he climbs behind the gauze to be part of his own story, to enter his own fantasy world. The famous Flight of the Bumblebee is magically conjured, as are Gvidon-bee's antics stinging his aunties, disrupting their attempts to stop the tsar visiting Buyan himself.

Bernarda Bobro, Carole Wilson, Stine Marie Fischer, Ante Jerkunica, Bogdan Volkov, Svetlana Aksenova © Forster
Bernarda Bobro, Carole Wilson, Stine Marie Fischer, Ante Jerkunica, Bogdan Volkov, Svetlana Aksenova
© Forster

After the success of La Monnaie's Le Coq d'or (directed by Laurent Pelly), it's great to see music director Alain Altinoglu continue his exploration of Rimsky-Korsakov operas. His orchestra played this glittering score, with its many showpiece episodes, quite brilliantly and he's assembled a superb cast. As Militrisa, Svetlana Aksenova had plenty of blade to her soprano, as did Kulchynska, a thrilling voice of steel and silver, floating top notes well in her aria “Ty, tsarevich, moy spasitel”. Bogdan Volkov brought airy plangency to the demanding tenor role of Gvidon, while Ante Jerkunica's raven bass impressed as the duped tsar. Carole Wilson curdled her tone wickedly as the scheming Babarikha, who stirs up Militrisa's cackling sisters. Minor roles were vividly sung and the Monnaie chorus did sterling work, often from behind a scrim or from the balcony.

Bogdan Volkov (Gvidon) and Olga Kulchynska (Swan Princess) © Forster
Bogdan Volkov (Gvidon) and Olga Kulchynska (Swan Princess)
© Forster

Tcherniakov can be an infuriating director – his Carmen and Troyens therapy sessions drove me nuts – but in his native Russian repertoire, he can be touched by genius. And so it proves here, still telling the story of the opera, but with another layer on top, which neither jars nor frustrates. When Tcherniakov is at his best, his productions are touching and sincere. Volkov's Gvidon has all the tics – rocking, pacing, hand-shaking – and volatility I've seen in the autistic children I taught. The scene where Aksenova's Militrisa cradles her son reminded of watching my teaching assistant cradling one particular boy and telling him stories to try and calm him down when distressed. Tcherniakov seems to tap into the autistic spectrum with insider knowledge. It's telling that there's no fairy tale ending for this Gvidon, unable to cope when the real world intrudes in a moving finale.

*****