Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov "Christmas Eve" opera in 4 acts
Performed in Russian (with synchronised English supertitles)
World premiere: 14 Sep 1954 Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, St Petersburg
Premiere of this production: 31 Dec 2008
The performance has 2 intermissions
Running time: 3 hours
World premiere: 28 November (10 December) 1895, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Director Olga Malikova about her performance:
"It is no secret that right after the first edition of Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka Gogol was acknowledged by everyone as a wonderful comic writer. Everyone was laughing, starting with typesetters who "when seeing the author of the Evenings would start tittering and chortle facing away to the wall" (from Gogol?s letter to Pushkin, 1831). However, only a few managed to understand that the main theme of the Evenings was intrusion of the demonic forces into the human life.
It was Rimsky-Korsakov who, quite unpredictably for the public, introduced Slavonic and mythological beliefs connected with the birth of the sun after the winter solstice into Gogol?s story. He defined the genre of his opera as a TRUE STORY-CHRISTMAS CAROL and saturated his creation with Ukrainian folklore thus emphasizing its genre tincture.
In my artistic approach I wanted to go away from the "fairy tale" and join "Dikanka," "Petersburg," and "the air space" by the same place of action. To put it short, inhabitants of Dikanka village will tell the audience a beautiful story about the CHRISTMAS OF LOVE. The fact is, love is nothing else but the top revelation of harmony, to which the people had been striving in all times.
What do I want to tell the audience by my performance? First of all, I want to remind of our national traditions, our roots that have grown through Heathenism into Christianity; secondly, to show that those demonic forces and human vice which Gogol personifies through his characters are nothing but the evil which lives in a person as such. It is that very evil that inspires us to make ill-thought and often silly or vicious actions. But each of us has something bright and light inside, which elevates us spiritually and gives us strength and inspires for heroic exploits. This is the very fruitful force of love which is capable to overcome the dark forces of evil and create miracles."
To continue the tradition of New Year performances for children, the Mariinsky Theater is preparing a premiere of Christmas Eve performance on the stage of the Concert Hall. Elements of decorations and costumes are being made at the theater’s master shops. It looks like the new premiere is going to turn into a truly bright event in the chain of the New Year holidays and premieres.
On the history of the opera creation:
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov got the idea to write an opera after Gogol`s novel Christmas Eve at the times when Petr Tchaikovsky presented his Blacksmith Vakula under the motto "Art is eternal, life is too short" for a musical competition that he won. Under the competition conditions, the opera which had got the first place was to appear in the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theater. The premiere took place on November 24, 1876. Thirty years later, on December 29, 1906, the second edition of the opera was presented on the same stage under the name Lenticels. On April 29, 1880, another opera after the same story, N. Soloviev`s Vakula, the Blacksmith, which had been created for the same competition that Tchaikovsky won, was shown at the Petersburg Kononov Hall; it was performed by participants of the Music and Drama circle, amateur actors.
Despite the fact that two authors had already addressed the same novel, the magic of this writing would not get off Rimsky-Korsakov`s mind. However, due to the nicety of his character, afraid to afflict Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov had never started to write Christmas Eve until after Tchaikovsky`s death. Only in the late spring of 1893 had he begun his work keeping it in secret even from many of his acquaintances.
Keeping most of the novel`s plotlines, Rimsky-Korsakov had supplemented them with many scenes and characters that Gogol had never had. All the previous operas (The Snow Maiden, Mlada, and The May Night) might have preceded the appearance of the semi-pagan rituals in the new writing, which remained in the Christian festivities of the Christmas night; these were the Devil, Witch (Solokha) and Sorcerer (Patsuk), Kolyada and Ovsen, stars and devilry. This way, Gogol`s story became interlaced with the anachronistic pagan legends.
However, later, in his "Chronicles of my musical life" Rimsky-Korsakov noted: "…On the one hand, my libretto was following Gogol strictly, not excluding his language and expressions; on the other hand, it contained in its fantastical part a lot of outside things, enforced by me. For me and those willing to go deeply inside, this connection was obvious; for the public, it turned out to be absolutely obscure, unnecessary and even interfering. My infatuation with myths and putting them along with Gogol`s stories was, no doubt, my mistake, but this mistake did give me a chance to write a lot of interesting music."
Indeed, the music of Christmas Eve created a vast space not only for interpretation of the common life scenes, but also for presenting a fantasy faerie show. A hundred years ago, in the first third of the 19th century, from 1803 to 1807, F. Kauer`s fairy-comic opera The Mermaid after a story of K. F. Gensler, an Austrian writer, had a great success on the stage of the St Petersburg Bolshoy Theater. Interpreted in the Russian mood, it had such a great success that nearly every year its continuation with music of Russian composers, S. Davydov and K. Kavos, appeared on stage. By contemporaries` testimonies, those were grandiose faerie shows with transformations, volcanic fountains, rivers coming out of their shores, an underwater kingdom, monsters and ghosts.
90 years later, Rimsky-Korsakov seemed to have brought the genre of the "magic" opera back on stage, but in a different hypostasis. A true master, he created mythological "portraits" of Slavic daemons and "devilry" creating magnificent contrast musical pictures of Vakula`s flight on a devil to Petersburg and his return to Dikanka. We get a nearly physical and phonic feeling of the frosty air, the beauty of the calm winter sky, the round dance of stars and celestial bodies, the magic picture of the dawn, and, all of sudden, the rushing in rasp and howl of the devilish chase. These magnificent musical sketches have always been arousing directing, choreographic and scenographic fantasy of the producers, opening immense freedom for the most incredible stage solutions.
Late one Christmas Eve, the beekeeper Rudy Panko invites the audience to a "little party" where the lads and lasses will tell a story "about all sorts and everything!". The Dikanka villagers begin their story... On the night before Christmas the witch Solokha is beginning to perform the ancient traditional rituals. At that moment, her companion the Devil appears. He is furious with her son Vakula for mocking him - he has "recently daubed the church vestibule for a laugh, as if a Devil could be chased away by wattle and wood." To get back at him, the Devil persuades Solokha to steal the moon and call up a blizzard. When it gets dark, Chub will stay home by the stove, and Vakula will be unable to visit his daughter, the beautiful Oksana. Solokha agrees. She is more fond of Chub - a wealthy widower - than of any of the other Dikanka cossacks, and she is happy to get on his good side. The Devil and Solokha call up a blizzard and steal the moon. Panas, in celebratory mood, is thrown out of the tavern by the landlord, and decides to continue his Christmas Eve at Chub's. Chub, however, has already left his house and talks Panas into going with him to the Sexton's for Christmas pudding. He promises that there will be excellent saffron moonshine. The blizzard gets stronger, and blows Panas and Chub off the road.
Vakula is also not abed. He is wandering indecisively around Chub's house: How can he find out if the proud Oksana loves him?
Lost in the dark, Panas returns to the tavern, while Chub, lost in the dark and unable to find the Sexton's house, heads home. However, he bumps into Vakula outside his house: "No, it's not my house. The smith wouldn't be wandering around there", he thinks, and sets off to call on Solokha. Vakula, finally throwing off his doubts, decides to have it out with Oksana. The blizzard stops.
Oksana is preening in front of the mirror, admiring her reflection. Vakula enters unnoticed and gazes with adoration on her beauty. But it is far from easy to win her heart. She teases Vakula, pretending that she is bored with him and is waiting for her girlfriends to go wassailing, where there will be boys who "will tell some wonderful stories". Here they are, and one of her friends, Odarka, is wearing new slippers. Oksana whines that nobody will give her a present like that. When Vakula says that he is ready to get her any slippers she could possibly desire, Oksana promises in front of everyone that "if he gets hold of the slippers that the mother Tsaritsa herself wears, then I'll marry him."
After the freezing cold, Solokha and the Devil warm up inside with songs and dances. Suddenly, there is a loud knock on the door. Solokha barely has time to hide the Devil with a sack when in walks the Village Head. He was also invited to Christmas Pudding with the Sexton, but seeing the light in Solokha's house, he has decided to pass the evening with her. He only has time to drink a cup of pepper vodka when there comes another knock on the door. Solokha hides the village head inside another sack, and opens the door to the Sexton. Rather than wait for his guests to brave the blizzard, the Sexton has decided he would prefer to see Solokha. But his wooing is also cut short by another loud knock on the door, this time from Chub. Hiding the sexton in the last empty sack, Solokha welcomes her favoured guest coquettishly. However, Vakula comes home unexpectedly, and the seriously worried Solokha is forced to hide Chub in the sack that already contains the Sexton. Vakula wants to take the sacks out of the house, seeing as "tomorrow is a holiday". But the sacks turn out to be very heavy. The stubborn smith manages to hoist them on his back nonetheless, and he heads for the smithy.
The boys and girls are celebrating the Holy Night. All around there are games, jokes, and masked faces. The drunken Panas disports himself, and Oksana frolics. When she sees Vakula, she says again to him: "Get those slippers, smith, and I will marry you!" But Vakula wants the proud maiden to stop tormenting him, and he decides to leave the village. Everyone becomes concerned lest the smith harm himself or even kill himself in his grief. The Woman With Ordinary Nose and the Woman With Purple Nose run to spread the gossip throughout the village. One tells that the smith has hanged himself, the other that he has thrown himself under the ice. Oksana, too, is worried - what if his grief should lead him to love another, and to call her the most beautiful in the world? Then she notices the sacks that Vakula has left behind. The youths untie them, and Solokha's confused admirers emerge one by one - Chub, the Village Head, and the Sexton. "Ah, Solokha. The woman's a trickster! The woman's a devil!" the crowd shouts out with uncontrollable laughter.
Vakula, taking with him only one small sack, has gone to seek advice from the old sorcerer Patsyuk. Rumour has it that he knows all the devils. The smith asks Patsyuk to show him how to find the Devil, the only one who can help with his grief. "You won't have to go far when you have the Devil on your shoulders," Patsyuk answers serenely. Astonished, Vakula watches as the Devil climbs out of his sack and offers to help him on the condition that he sell his soul. Pretending to be willing to sign his promise in blood, Vakula suddenly grabs the Devil by the tail and pulls out a cross. Under the threat of the sign of the cross, the Devil agrees to do whatever the smith asks of him. Vakula orders the Devil to take him to the Tsaritsa, and they set off.
In the air, a violin play Christmas Eve. The planets fly through the sky. The sorcerers, nymphs, and witches of Kiev are gathering for a Sabbath. Among them are Patsyuk and Solokha. They create a demonic wassail. When they see Vakula with the Devil, the try to block his path, but the smith holds tightly to his cross.
A fanfare sounds, and the boys and girls scuttle and scamper about, rushing to get ready to present St Petersburg and the Tsaritsa herself. The ladies of the court dance a shapely Polonaise with the Zaporozhian Cossacks. The Tsaritsa appears, and Vakula falls at her feat. "If only my lass could wear a pair of slippers like those!" The Tsaritsa is charmed by the simple honesty of the smith, and she gives him her finest slippers.
Christmas Eve is coming to an end. Soon the sun will be up. The unclean forces hurry to hide from the dawn. Vakula is carried back by the Devil, in his hands is his precious package for Oksana. Daylight comes and the maidens enter, rolling a wheel - the symbol of the sun, of the earth's fertility, of light, and of life. Bells ring out - Christmas and Love have come to the world.
Oksana is sad. She has already realised that no boy will love her as well as Vakula. Meanwhile, the two Women argue in front of Chub as to whether the smith has hanged himself or drowned himself.
Their argument turns to a fight, and the Women run away. Chub also drags himself off home, leaving Oksana alone. She does not notice Vakula, who has at last heard that she loved him. The beautiful maiden no longer needs any slippers, she would be happy to marry the smith without them. Chub agrees with this - he cannot forget the faithless Solokha, and the presents Vakula has brought from Petersburg - a coloured belt and a sheepskin hat - are particularly fine. Chub calls together the village to tell them there will soon be a wedding. Everyone rejoices at Vakula's return.
Then Vakula presents to the audience the beekeeper Rudy Panko. He is the one, with his "golden quill", who has written this fantastic story about Christmas Eve.
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