Libretto by Yegor Rosen
•World Premiere: 9 December 1836, Bolshoi Theatre, St Petersburg;
•Premiere of this production: 30 May 2003, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
The Performance has two intermissions
A Life for the Tsar is a "patriotic-heroic tragic opera" in five acts with an epilogue by Mikhail Glinka. The original Russian libretto, based on historical events, was written by Nestor Kukolnik, Yegor Fyodorovich Rozen, Vladimir Sollogub and Vasily Zhukovsky. The opera was immediately hailed as a great success, and became the obligatory season-opener in the Imperial Russian opera theaters. It was one of the first Russian operas to be known outside Russia. A Life for the Tsar occupies an important position in Russian musical theater as the first native opera to win a permanent place in the repertoire. Glinka and the writers with whom he was associated chose, in Susanin, a hero of Russian nationalism well suited to the mood of the time. In keeping with Glinka’s European training, much of A Life for the Tsar was structured according to conventional Italian and French models of the period. Nevertheless, several passages in the opera are based on Russian folk songs or folk melodic idioms that become a full part of the musical texture.
(Note that the Act IV and the Epilogue contain more than one set of stage decor.)
On a street in the village of Domnino, Antonida is eager to marry Sobinin, but her father Susanin refuses permission until a Russian has been duly chosen to take the Tsar’s throne. When Sobinin informs him that the Grand Council in Moscow has chosen a Tsar, everyone celebrates.
In a sumptuous hall in Poland, the nobility are celebrating the Polish dominance over the Russians with singing and dancing. Suddenly a messenger comes in, with the news that Mikhail Romanov has been selected as the Tsar of Russia and is now in hiding. The Poles vow to overthrow him.
In Susanin’s cottage. Susanin and his adopted son Vanya pledge to defend the new Tsar. Susanin blesses Sobinin and Antonida on their upcoming wedding. A detachment of Polish soldiers bursts in, demanding to know where the Tsar is hiding. Susanin, in order to protect the Tsar, tells Vanya aside that he will lead them off the trail, and sends Vanya off to warn him. Pretending to help them, Susanin goes off with the Poles. Antonida is devastated. Sobinin gathers some men to go on a mission to rescue Susanin.
In a dense forest, Sobinin reassures his men of the rightness of their mission. Night falls. In a part of the forest near a monastery, Vanya knocks at the gates and alerts the inhabitants to spirit the Tsar away. Into an impassable, snow-covered area of the forest Susanin has led the suspicious Polish troops. The Poles sleep while Susanin waits for the dawn and bids farewell to his children. A blizzard sets in, and when day breaks, the Poles awake. When they realize that Susanin has deceived them, they kill him.
Across the stage walks a crowd of people, celebrating the triumph of the new Tsar. Alone in their own solemn procession, Antonida, Sobinin, and Vanya mourn Susanin. A detachment of Russian troops comes upon them and, after discovering their connection with Susanin, comforts them. The scene changes to Red Square, where the people proclaim glory to the Tsar and to Susanin’s memory.