Opera is capable of great ironic timing. On Monday, the hapless David Davis trooped into Brussels to begin Brexit negotiations with the European Union. The next day, half an hour northwest in Ghent, the enterprising Opera Vlaanderen unveiled its new production of Sadko, whose hero yearns to widen the narrow minds of the citizens of Novgorod and open up trade with their neighbours. Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera has some toothsome musical moments within its seven tableaux, but is rarely performed outside Russia. Sadly, I doubt that Daniel Kramer’s dismal staging will win it many new friends. 

Zurab Zurabishvili (Sadko), Betsy Horne (Volkhova) and Chorus
© Annemie Augustijns

The plot is rooted in 12th-century folklore. Sadko is a minstrel, a dreamer who suggests Novgorod would be more prosperous if a river joined Lake Ilmen to the ocean, thus opening up new trade routes. The townspeople deride him, so Sadko consoles himself by singing beside the lake, attracting a flock of swans – daughters of the Sea King – who transform into beautiful maidens. They are led by Princess Volkhova, who wishes to marry a mortal. She and Sadko fall in love and she fixes it for him to catch three golden fish, thus winning a huge wager that enables him to buy merchandise and ships. Sadko’s ship, however, is becalmed on its return voyage and, to placate the grumpy Sea King, Sadko sacrifices himself, plunging to the ocean bed. There he plays the gusli for his wedding celebrations, causing a huge storm from which he and Volkhova escape. Volkhova sings Sadko a lullaby before being transformed into the River Volkhova, enabling Sadko’s ships to sail into Lake Ilmen amidst general rejoicing.

Evgeny Solodovnikov (Duda), Zurab Zurabishvili (Sadko) and Michael J Scott (Sopel)
© Annemie Augustijns

Kramer enthuses about dusting off the score of this “ancient dead ancestor” but decides that he doesn’t always like what he sees and imposes his own version of events. There is voluble programme note guff about protectionism and cosmopolitanism and Sadko keeping his masculine and feminine sides in balance. Kramer updates the action, the minstrel Sadko becoming a failed nightclub singer, earning the derision and ritual humiliation of the Novgorod townspeople – couch potatoes obsessed with the shopping channel. A giant video screen is angled over the set, hyperactively spewing images of consumerism – Scrooge McDuck and Chelsea footballers – amidst glitterballs and lunar landscapes. The Varangian, Indian and Venetian guests (for whom Rimsky provides some of the opera’s best music) are travel agents, touting the merits of their land which quickly dissolve into images of hijacking and slums.

Zurab Zurabishvili (Sadko) and Victoria Yarovaya (Lyubava)
© Annemie Augustijns

Most damagingly, there isn’t a whiff of the sea in this most nautical of operas, with Volkhova burying her gold gloves (which substitute for the golden fish) into the voice-sapping rubber crumb that litters Annette Murschetz’s set. The “river” that opens up on Volkhova’s demise is a chasm in the set, Kramer dividing Sadko and his supporters from the women in his life: Lyubava (his long-suffering wife), Volkhova and the young singer Nezhata, who is horrified at the crowd’s triumphalism. In Kramer’s version, Novgorod “once again envelops itself in isolationism and xenophobia”, which is a perverse reading of Rimsky’s finale. Skilled directors frequently provide a contemporary setting without changing the basics of the actual plot (Dmitri Tcherniakov’s recent Snow Maiden for Paris is the perfect example), but to change a happy ending because you’ve got a problem with it smacks of directorial arrogance.

Zurab Zurabishvili (Sadko)
© Annemie Augustijns

Rimsky-Korsakov’s score has its longueurs but includes magical moments. Early in his compositional career – which coincided with his time in the Russian Navy – he wrote his tone poem Sadko (which I heard the Moscow Philharmonic play just last month). Thirty years later, he took its themes as motifs for his opera. Rimsky’s orchestral writing is opulent, almost Wagnerian – there are even hints of the Rhine’s swirling waters at one point. Dmitri Jurowski drew plenty of dramatic colour from Opera Vlaanderen’s excellent orchestra, while the Chorus sang lustily in the many crowd scenes.

Performances were mixed. The title role is a mighty sing and fair play to tenor Zurab Zurabishvili, who got through a very physical performance unscathed. He has an odd voice production though, hurling himself into lines aggressively with a throttled quality that is tiring to listen to. Victoria Yarovaya was a moving Lyubava, her warm, even mezzo firmly controlled. Betsy Horne’s Volkhova, dressed like a ghostly swan bride, sang securely with nicely floated top notes in her lullaby, but Anatoli Kotscherga’s bass is now far too hollow and wobbly, his Sea-King costumed like a ragged raven. Raehann Bryce-Davis, with a voluptuous mezzo, was fabulous as the young minstrel Nezhata. Adam Smith sang the Hindu merchant’s aria with much tenderness and a smile in his voice, but it was Pavel Yankovski who stole the show with his paean to Venice, his baritone sounding seductive and glamorous.