Scene 6 from the opera

  • Producer: 1898 Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev
  • 1916 Serge de Diaghileff’s Ballet Russe
  • First performed: January 1898, as the full opera
  • Premiere: 16 June 1911, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris
  • Revival: 9 October 1916, Manhattan Opera House, New York
  • Costume design: 1911 Boris Anisfeld and Léon Bakst
  • 1916 Natalia Goncharova
  • Scenery design: 1911 Boris Anisfeld and Léon Bakst
  • 1916 Natalia Goncharova (with 1911 set by Boris Anisfeld)
  • Music: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Choreography: 1911 Michel Fokine
  • 1916 Adolph Bohm
  • Libretto: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Vladimir Belsky
  • Main characters: Sadko, Princess Volkova, the King of the Sea, princesses, the Pilgrim, the Golden Fish, the Riverlet, Rusalkas, streams, naiads, goldfish, squid, sea monsters, seahorses

The full opera version of this ballet is taken from an epic Russian folk poem set in Novgorod, Russia, where Sadko, an impoverished musician, leaves his wife in search of his fortune. He plays his gusli (a traditional stringed instrument) by the shores of Lake Ilmen, captivating Princess Volkova, the youngest daughter of the King of the Sea. She makes the minstrel a wealthy seaman. However, after travelling the oceans for many years Sadko becomes stranded in calm water and is forced to dive into the sea, where he is reunited with, and marries, Volkova. Following the wild revelry of the wedding, attended by monsters of the deep and fantastic sea creatures, Sadko returns to his wife in Novgorod and the princess becomes the Volkova River. The Ballets Russes only ever produced the sixth scene of the opera, The kingdom under the sea, as a ballet, focusing of the festivities of Sadko and Volkova’s wedding, attended by the monsters, fish and sea creatures.

In 1911 Anisfeld produced his extremely elegant, rich and self-contained drawings for characters in the underwater ballet segment of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairytale opera Sadko. His designs show the continuing influence of the Art Nouveau and Secession styles which dominated European art at the turn of the century. There is a dramatic contrast with Goncharova’s more robust realisations of the same ballet made only five years later, in the midst of the First World War. Instead of Golovin’s delicate fin-de-siècle designs, she presented vivid marine creatures such as the golden seahorse and the squid. Goncharova’s knowledge and love of Russian folk dress can be seen in the design of the costumes and in the shape of the headdresses for the Fish characters. The seahorse’s dappled patterns and the squid costume’s undulating tentacles outlined in metallic lamé over ultramarine silk allowed the dancers to interpret Fokine’s choreography, suggesting the fluid movement of water and the shimmer and iridescence of marine creatures.

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