Opera in four acts. Running Time: 3 hours.
I think this opera takes the prize for “longest title”. Although termed “the Russian Parsifal” it would perhaps be more appropriate to call this opera “the Russian Ring Cycle” as there is far more influence here from Wagner’s four opera cycle than from his final opera. Incidental trivia: the first Fevroniya, the Russian-Jewish soprano Maria Nikolaevna Kuznetsova, eventually married the nephew of Jules Massenet, Alfred, although she evidently died in poverty in Paris in 1966. This review is based on the Valery Gergiev conducted recording although the link below is to a slightly longer recording which I think is probably better because much of the Gergiev recording seems sedate. Another bit of trivia: this was intended to be Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera, with Le coq d’or only coming about after he felt the story had to be set because of its political allegory. Rimsky-Korsakov, ever the liberal atheist that he was, could not help but utilize fairy-tales to depict allegorical political messaging. Or is it pantheism, after all nature seems to be the dominate factor in this opera?
PLOT: Somewhere near the Volga river in the 6751st year from the creation of the world (I’m not kidding, that is what the libretto states). Fevroniya is a child of nature who finds a wounded prince and tends to him. She becomes engaged to him but their wedding is interrupted by an invasion by the Tatars. She prays that the city of Great Kitezh be made invisible by a golden cloud, which occurs. Her prince is killed in the ensuing battle but she and the town drunk, Grishka of Little Kitezh flee into the wilderness were she ends up losing him but meets up with two of Big Bird’s ancestors who prophesy her death and her eternal fate in paradise. This comes to pass, but not before she dictates a letter to Grishka that he too will find the invisible city one day.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A forest near Little Kitezh. (32 minutes)
0, 3, 8, 13, 18, 22, 24, 27: The opera opens on a single chord, similarly to Das Rheingold. The prelude ***, entitled “Hymn to the Wilderness”, wanders about with one good theme which repeats over and over, sometimes in a chromatic variation, sort of like it is supposed to be the chord of creation. Also a coo-coo bird chirps away briefly, it is similar but different from the famous “Forest Murmurs” of Siegfried. Fevroniya comes out of her dwelling and greets her “brother” the tree creeper **. The rest of her monologue tells us that she is one with nature. She then runs into a wounded young man who has lost his way during a hunt, this is Vsevolod, son of Prince Yuri of Kitezh *, but he does not tell her this. His song is nice * as is her long patch of arioso *. There is a sudden change in the music, more up beat *, as Vsevolod vows to marry her (she still has no clue as to who he is). The coo-coo comes back. They sing simultaneously for once *. The Prince’s hunting party finally comes upon them **. One of the hunting party, Fyodor Poyarok, tell’s her who the young man he that is going to marry her. The act ends abruptly.
ACT 2: Little Kitezh. (31 minutes)
0, 5, 7, 8, 12, 15, 20, 23, 29: Almost instantly we meet possibly the most believably human characterization in any Rimsky-Korsakov opera: Grishka Kuterma, the town drunk **. Although the music is fugitive (low strings with dancing brass and woodwinds as the townspeople enjoy the dancing bear act), in its own way it is really good. A psalmaster passes by singing religious hymns. There is a good choral sequence here * as Fevroniya’s wedding cortege is brought and the wealthier members of the town get Grishka to insult her because of classism *. The processional chorus is nice if a little stilted *. Grishka ends up bombing out. Then there is a dance sequence as the procession comes on at last *. Fevroniya makes her address and then Grishka insults her, only to be turned out by the populous, although Fevroniya herself is actually sympathetic to him **. The wedding chorus * is cut short by the arrival of the Tatars! Celebration turns to panic, this is actually rather good **. The Tatars capture the city and take Fevroniya prisoner. They get Grishka to betray his people and lead them to Great Kitezh (this becomes painful after a while as the agony really starts to pile up **. Fevroniya prayers that the city be rendered invisible, and the act ends on a terrifying chord.
ACT 3 (57 minutes)
Scene 1: Great Kitezh.
0, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 22, 29: The act begins with doom, the people are certain of defeat *. They pray to God. The scene mostly consists of choral-soloist-choral exchanges *. Finally we have a long monologue from Prince Yuri *, before a page arrives with news that the Tatars are on their way to the city. The townspeople prepare for battle to the most depressing chorus *. The page gets another good outing *. Another chorus, but this one is really good **. The page gets yet another outing *. Prince Vsevolod tells his father that he will lead a force into battle against the Tatars. They go off and the women pray ***, something magical (or miraculous) occurs and the city is suddenly enveloped in a golden mist. There is then an orchestral intermezzo ** depicting the battle in which Prince Vsevolod dies.
Scene 2: By Lake Svetly’iar near Great Kitezh.
33, 43, 45, 51, 53: Grishka and the Tatars end up by the lake, but because they cannot see the city they tie him up to a tree for deception, intending on killing him at dawn. The whole scene, around six minutes, is probably * or ** on its own although there isn’t anything specific I can point to. Things get really ornery as Burundai and Bedyai fight over Fevroniya (the former killing the latter) until Fevroniya herself finally comes on * mourning her prince to an oddly cheerful accompaniment. Grishka pleads with her to free him. She does so thinking that kindness will heal his soul, but he is plagued by nightmares ** and neurosis takes over his mind. Fevroniya has a nice patch of arioso here * but Grishka is rather lost at this point before he discovers that, although the city is still physically invisible, the dawning light causes the city to be reflected in the water of the lake, and the bells of the all the churches of the city continue to ring out manically. The Tatars are terrified by this and flee ***.
ACT 4 (56 minutes)
Scene 1: The same as Act 1.
2: Weirdly chromatic workings in the orchestration as Fevroniya and Grishka roam about the forest aimlessly. Grishka has lost it totally and sings and dances a ballad about Satan *. He runs off, leaving Fevroniya alone. This all takes about ten minutes to transpire some how.
10: Fevroniya is finally alone again ** and she is lulled to sleep by the sounds of the forest coming from the orchestra, harp, triangle, woodwinds.
17: Coo-coos return as she encounters the Alkonost, sort of Big Bird’s contralto great-aunt, who predicts that she will soon die. There is one understated melody here **.
21: Prince Vsevolod arrives to take her to the invisible city ***.
26: Another bird, a soprano named Sirin promises Fevroniya immortality. The duet that follows between Fevroniya and Vsevolod is more beautiful ***, followed by a long orchestral intermezzo with the two fairy-tale birds doing their thing again, the soprano in particular going off chromatically, followed by more orchestral interluding.
Scene 2: The Invisible City.
34: This long final scene *** is a mixture of solemnity and sobriety with mystical traits. It almost feels more like Shangri-la, and is somewhat unsettling. Rimsky takes a LONG time to get through what would have taken a different composer ten minutes, tops, but it is very musically lovely and never turns into a concert number, like the finale of Ruslan i Ludmila, which given the static nature of what transpires, could have been a temptation. Fevroniya writes her letter of hope to Grishka and the opera ends with a few cymbal crashes in march time, then a long chord held on the trumpets (softly). Curtain.
This opera is a little weird, partially because the storyline unfolds very, very slow, which, given The Maid of Pskov, seems to be a common thing for Rimsky-Korsakov. There is very little plot for a three hour long opera and what is here seems to never make up its mind as to what it ultimately is. Is the opera meant to be symbolic or is it a straightforward active narrative? It does not appear to be either as the action is far too slow and most of the symbols are obviously devoid of their originally religious meanings. Fevronia is based on an historical Russian Christian saint, but here she is more a fairy-tale figure than a flesh and blood or even hagiographic personage albeit a very strong personality who dominates whenever she is on stage. Yet part of the effect of grandeur the opera conveys comes from the fact that it is basically the same length as Tannhauser. The music, with only a small number of exceptions such as the Burundai-Bedyai scene, is very beautiful, the orchestration is clear, and if the final scene is a bit bizarre, it is only because Rimsky is presenting us with his atheistic paradise devoid of God which for a theist such as myself feels a wee bit shallow given the fact that he is also not making a joke of the situation, it is all deathly serious (in spite of the presence of two of Big Bird’s aunts). Yet the libretto leaves almost nothing to chance, even fleshing out details like how the city of Kitezh is invisible and yet still has a reflection in the waters of the lake, or how its church bells can still be heard, or the mental state of the alcoholic Grishka (in itself somewhat new in opera, the depiction of a sickly alcoholic character, and in a fairy-tale opera to boot!), or how Fevroniya doesn’t even forget Grishka when she is in heaven and about to marry, all plot points most other librettists would have overlooked. An unexpected A.