“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