World Premiere: 10 February (29 January) 1882, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Production premiere: 4 September 2020, Mariinsky II, St Petersburg
Running time: 3 hours 05 minutes
The performance has one interval
Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Libretto by the composer after the play by Alexander Ostrovsky
Musical Director: Valery Gergiev
Stage Director: Anna Matison
Set Designer: Alexander Orlov
Costume Designer: Irina Cherednikova
Lighting Designer: Denis Solntsev
Video Graphics Designer: Vadim Dulenko
Choreographer: Radu Poklitaru
Musical Preparation: Irina Soboleva
Midnight on Red Hill in the magical land of the Berendeyans. A Wood-Goblin heralds the approach of Spring. Surrounded by her retinue of birds, she descends upon the earth. The forest is still asleep beneath the snow and the country is gripped by the cold. Fifteen years earlier, Spring and Grandfather Frost had a daughter, Snegurochka, and ever since then the enraged sun-god Yarilo has bestowed but little light and warmth; the summers have become short and the winters are long and bleak. Grandfather Frost appears. He promises Spring that he will leave the land of the Berendeyans. But who will protect Snegurochka? Yarilo is only too eager for the occasion to ignite the destructive fire of passion in the girl's heart... The parents resolve to release their daughter into the Berendeyans' settlement under the guard of the childless Bobyl Bakula. Snegurochka is happy: the marvellous songs of Lel the shepherd have long drawn her to people. Ordering the Wood-Goblin to safeguard their daughter, Spring and Grandfather Frost depart. A crowd of merry Berendeyans appears in the forest glade. With their songs and dances they celebrate Shrovetide, joyfully welcoming the arrival of spring. Suddenly Bobyl Bakula espies a strange-looking girl. To Bobyl Bakula's great delight, she asks to be accepted as her daughter.
Snegurochka lives in the Berendeyans' settlement across the river with Bobyl Bakula and Bobylikha. Lel the shepherd sings to her, but, hearing the calls of his merry girlfriends, he abandons the flower given him by his timid admirer and runs away. The girl is left offended: "Worthy Lel, run whither they love you. Seek love, seek it – you deserve it." The nostalgic Snegurochka is joined by her friend Kupava. She has come to share her happiness: the handsome Mizgir is in love with her – and they are soon to be married. Mizgir himself joins them. He has come with rich gifts in order to purchase his bride from her friends according to ancient custom. As the rite reaches its peak, Mizgir notices Snegurochka. In an instant he forgets his former betrothed. In return for rich gifts, he asks Snegurochka's sworn parents keep her distanced from the shepherd. With tears in his eyes, the offended Lel departs from the Bobyl Court. In the mean time, Kupava summons the people. She curses her offender and wishes to drown herself, though Lel prevents her from doing so. Shocked at this treachery, the Berendeyans advise Kupava to seek protection from Tsar Berendei.
Berendei is alarmed: Yarilo the sun-god is incandescent with rage at the Berendeyans and refuses to warm their earth. To appease the sun, on Yarilo's day Berendei resolves to marry off the brides and grooms within his kingdom. And yet the tsar's confidante, the boyar Bermyata, relates that the maiden Snegurochka who has appeared in the settlement across the river has turned the heads of all the grooms – and that they have abandoned their brides. Kupava rushes in. She tells of her unhappiness. The enraged Berendei orders his retainers to seek out the miscreant and bring him to the regal Court. The heralds summon the people. Mizgir is brought in. He refuses to obey Berendei's order to marry Kupava. As punishment, the tsar condemns him to eternal exile. Mizgir makes no attempt to justify himself. He asks only that Berendei look at Snegurochka. The girl's beauty stuns the tsar. Recognising the fact that this stranger knows nothing of love, he comprehends the reason behind Yarilo's wrath. Berendei then declares that among those youths, the one who can instil Snegurochka with love before dawn will have her as a bride. Mizgir requests that his exile may be deferred and promises to set flame to the love within the heart of this innocent beauty.
The Berendeyans have assembled deep in the forest so that they can celebrate Yarilo's day with games and dancing. As an award for his song, the tsar offers Lel the choice of selecting the maiden closest to his heart. The shepherd selects Kupava, which reduces Snegurochka to tears. On seeing her, Mizgir begs her to relieve him of his burning passion and to return his love for a priceless pearl, but his ardent speech only frightens the girl. The Wood-Goblin stand's on Mizgir's path. He enchants the forest and tempts him with visions of his beloved.
Yarilo's valley at dawn. Snegurochka turns to her mother with the reques that she grant her love. In response to the request of Spring's daughter, she is adorned with a magical garland. Now Snegurochka knows the sensation of love, and her next embrace with Mizgir is met with mutual passion. Soon the sun will rise, and, remembering her parents' instructions, the girl urges her beloved to flee form Yarlio's rays which will destroy her. As the first rays of the rising sun dawn, Berendei blesses the brides and grooms. Snegurochka and Mizgir bow before him. But their happiness is short-lived. The bright rays of the sun dispel the morning mists and fall upon Mizgir's beloved. Even on sensing her approaching death, she thanks her mother for the blessed gift of love. Beside himself with grief, Mizgir plunges into a lake. Yet the wise Berendei is unperturbed: Snegurochka's death placates the wrath of Yarilo, and Grandfather Frost can no longer hold the Berendeyans captive to his icy coldness. Lel and all the people sing a hymn in praise of the sun.
“You listen, and you melt…” the Snow Maiden sings with her dying heart, recalling the enchanting songs of Lel, the village shepherd. Rimsky-Korsakov invokes similar feelings with his music: at times it takes one’s breath away. The acute suffering of beauty also served as the original impulse that resulted in the creation of one of the most beguiling Russian operas: “In the winter of 1879–80,” the composer recalled, “I once again read The Snow Maiden, and I clearly saw its staggering beauty.” This is a reference to the play by Nikolai Ostrovsky, his “springtime tale”; this secondary title was retained for the opera, too. Written as if in one breath, surrounded by warm fields and groves, to the singing of birds, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden became transformed into a hymn to beauty, harmony, nature, life and love. “For me, there was no better subject in the world, there were no finer poetic images than the Snow Maiden, Lel or Spring, there was no better kingdom than that of the Berendeyans with their wonderful tsar, there was no better world-view and religion than worshipping Yarilo the Sun-God,” the composer recalled of the unforgettable summer of 1880, which he spent in his country estate near Luga, working on The Snow Maiden. Two years later came the premiere; the Mariinsky Theatre was to be the first stage from which the marvellous melodies of Lel’s songs were heard, the Snow Maiden’s crystalline and tender voice, the hot speeches of Mizgir the visiting merchant, the passionate declarations of Kupava, the famous “Mighty nature is full, full of wonders” coming from Tsar Berendey’s lips, and the choruses of his faithful subjects – full-sounding, crowded, filled with indomitable and almost magical energy.
And yet from the very start, in the utopian idyll of the land of the Berendeyans, Rimsky-Korsakov caught something disturbing, and it was not for nothing that following the first reading of the play this kingdom seemed “strange” to the composer. For the sake of preserving the existing world order, a cleansing sacrifice is made, and if archaic consciousness is ready, without hesitation, to recognise the need for this sacrifice, then we, people of a new age, are different: “No solemn ritual and no conviction that everything is done as it should be and goes on as usual will assure us of the justice of retribution,” wrote Boris Asafiev. “We feel sorry for the Snow Maiden,” the scholar sums up, describing the scene where the heroine melts. Anna Matison, who staged The Snow Maiden in 2020 at this opera’s home stage, took the following step of debunking the dubious goodness of the society presented in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opus. Her Snow Maiden is not a pantheistic myth about the violation and restoration of cosmic balance, but rather the story of a lonely teenage girl who finds herself in an odious adult world inhabited by greedy liars. The audience pities the female protagonist from the prologue to the finale. The Berendeyans, despite all the colourful splendour of their festive attire (by costume designer Irina Cherednikova), are not at all a peaceful rustic people, they are not cute Old Slavic “hobbits”, they are an aggressive crowd of consumers, ultimately cursed to being destroyed by their own god. The immense sizzling sphere of Yarilo, so powerfully contrasting with the weightless white ball that is the Snow Maiden (by set designer Alexander Orlov), in this context may be regarded as a menacing warning. Khristina Batyushina
The production is a laureate of the highest theater award of St Petersburg – Golden Sofit
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