Music by Modest Musorgsky
Libretto by Modest Musorgsky after the eponymous novel by Gustave Flaubert
Music edition of the Mariinsky Theatre
The libretto features verse by Vasily Zhukovsky, Apollon Maykov and Alexander Polezhaev
Orchestration by Modest Musorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vissarion Shebalin and Vyacheslav Nagovitsin
Salammbô: Yulia Matochkina
Mathô: Grigor Verner
The High Priest: Andrei Serov
Balearic Islander: Yaroslav Petryanik
Spendius: Vitaly Dudkin
Soloists of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Opera Singers, the Children’s Chorus and the Mariinsky Orchestra
Conductor: Pavel Petrenko
Chorus Master: Pavel Teplov
Children’s Chorus Master: Dmitry Ralko
Musical Preparation: Larisa Gergieva
Musorgsky worked tirelessly on the plot of the opera Salammbô from 1863 to 1866. The opera was essentially composed independently from The Five and Mily Balakirev, who during those years was Musorgsky’s musical mentor. According to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the composer occasionally allowed extracts from Salammbô to be performed within the circle and these extracts “at times drew the most tremendous approval for the beauty of their themes and ideas, while at others they drew the most incredible censure for their lack of order and muddle.”
The generally sceptical attitude within The Five to Musorgsky’s first attempt at an opera (it is indicative that not a single one of even the completed numbers of the score of Salammbô was ever performed at the concerts of the Free School of Music run by Balakirev) and his friends’ doubts about his abilities seem to have been the main reason why the composer refused to continue with the work. Musorgsky did not, however, reject the musical material of Salammbô, realising its high artistic merits. In later years, the composer would turn to the music of the opera on several occasions as a kind of musical “backroom”, borrowing from it certain themes and more developed episodes for his new opuses (among them Boris Godunov and the chorus Joshua).
The source of the opera’s plot was Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, a Russian translation of which was first published in 1863. Writing the libretto himself, Musorgsky did not entirely follow the novel’s plot: it was the composer who introduced the motif of the enslavement of the Libyans by Carthage as a reason for their insurrection (with Flaubert, the reason was another one, the hired Libyans having not been paid for their work). The composer planned for Salammbô to have four acts, though the music of the surviving original score includes the completed music in part only; this includes the separate numbers Song of the Balearic Islander from Act I, War Song of the Libyans (traditionally performed in Act I, though going by its content it should belong to Act II), Chorus of the Priestesses from the opera’s finale and the following expanded scenes: The Temple of Tanit (Act II, Scene 2), The Heathen Temple of Moloch (Act III, Scene 1) and The Dungeon of the Acropolis (Finale, Scene 1). According to some sources, Musorgsky composed but in all probability did not write down some further scenes, in particular a love scene featuring Mathô and Salammbô.
Arguably, the strongest impression made on audiences when first listening to the music of Salammbô is admiration – of the beauty and the refined poeticism of the lyrical episodes, the scale and the dramatic tension of the crowd scenes (the most vivid of which is the sacrifice of children to Moloch) and the power of Mathô’s persona. In terms of character, several pages of the opera’s score (for example, the start of the scene of the rite in Tanit’s temple, Tanit’s hymn in Act II and the chorus of priestesses in the finale) may be considered unique as they were never to be continued in any of Musorgsky’s other music.
The obvious integrity of the music in Salammbô has led, on numerous occasions, to attempts to give the opera an onstage production completeness as well – regardless of the fact that it is incomplete, parts of the material were used in the composer’s later works and the generally accepted view that the work cannot be completed. The Mariinsky Theatre has played a great role in reviving Salammbô not only in Russia but internationally. In 1989 the theatre commissioned the acclaimed composer Vyacheslav Nagovitsin to produce an orchestration of the opera presenting the music of Salammbô in the fullest possible version (with the exception of the numbers orchestrated by Musorgsky himself, Rimsky-Korsakov and Vissarion Shebalin). On the initiative of Valery Gergiev in 1991 Nagovitsin expanded this version, adding several works by Musorgsky “akin to” Salammbô (including the romance Night to characterise Salammbô). This version of the opera was first performed by the Mariinsky Theatre that year at the Ancient Roman arena in Mérida in Spain.