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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov the Antiquarian: The Narrativity of Diegetic Song in the Opera Sadko

  • Author(s): Riggs, Jeffrey T.
  • Advisor(s): Morris, Mitchell B.
  • et al.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov subtitled Sadko “an Opera-Bylina,” a gesture which both reveals his compositional approach, and gives the piece a sui generis designation as an operatic and folk-epic hybrid. The composer drew from an extraordinary range of textual and musical material to fashion Sadko, a work that is thoroughly imbued with references to Russian folk culture. His primary source texts were the Russian byliny: folk-epic poetry that had circulated orally for some seven centuries before being collected and transcribed in the nineteenth century. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s preoccupation with folklore represents a thematic continuation of his prior operas, his approach to his source material takes a decidedly antiquarian and philological turn in Sadko.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s transmutation of the byliny into operatic form involved his development of a set of narrative strategies that approximate the storytelling conventions of the source texts. Rimsky-Korsakov includes multiple narrators in the opera who present Sadko’s tale through different narrative frames, chronotopes, and musical idioms. The arias of each narrator constitute moments of heightened narrativity, in which the events of the plot are condensed, refracted, retold, and foretold through the prism of diegetic song. The diegetic passages, though generally critiqued as moments of stasis in the dramatic action of the opera, are in fact the active fulcra of the narrative, foretelling, even generating, its subsequent events as well as offering retrospective viewpoints on prior events from alternate narrative perspectives. The diegetic songs communicate implicit details about the narrators’ respective positions in the social strata, and their underlying alliances with other characters. Sadko not only tells the story of the eponymous hero, but foregrounds the mechanisms, modalities, and multidimensionality of telling itself.

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