Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Sniegurotchka/The Snow Maiden (1881)

Opera in prologue and four acts. Running Time: 3 hours 3 minutes.

Content Warning: Video contains nudity, rape/statutory rape, suicide, and liquefaction.

This one is deceptive. Although the plot is outwardly a fairy tale, it is actually a grand opera set in pre-Christian Russia. As much as it is a Slavic pantheistic parable, it is also a story just as complicated by human emotions as Les Huguenots. Rimsky-Korsakov loved this work above all his other operas, and much of its music demonstrates this fact as the score is rather uniformly joyous and the story saturated in pantheism. It is also extremely slow, as in slower than the proverbial glacier that is the titular heroine. Even by the standards of Rimsky-Korsakov, this one takes forever (with the prologue alone being 45 minutes long), and most productions historically and today are heavily edited in performance. I first viewed a Russian production which was cut down to two and a quarter hours, and none of the plot was missing. What I am reviewing here is the 2017 Paris Opera production directed by Dimitri Tcherniakov which updated the setting to a hippy forest cult and dealt somewhat differently with most of the male characters (Lel, Mizgir, Tsar Berendy). The Snow Maiden (I call her Snieg for short throughout the review), as usual, is an incredibly passive heroine, so I can only hope that something is made of Kupava, although this productions seems to take the relationship between the Maiden and her parents and deal with the psychology of parental neglect and, later, cult abuse. From my research I have learned that apparently the character most difficult for producers is actually Mizgir, who here is a modernist projection of toxic masculinity. There is a slight plot twist regarding his relationship with the Maiden which I will not give away yet. The video is in Russian with French subtitles, unfortunately there is no English-language option for my Anglophone-only viewers.

SETTING: Ancient Russia. Although partially exploring the sexual awakening (thanks to the self-absorbed contralto, or here countertenor, shepherd Lel) and liquifying demise of the titular character (soprano), it is also the struggle of the orphaned Kupava (soprano) who is deserted by her fiancé, the merchant Mizgir (baritone) who himself has fallen in love with the daughter of Zaddy Winter (bass) and Lady Spring (mezzo-soprano) who must never learn to love man or else melt and restore the four seasons (the land has been under a 15 year long winter). Meanwhile, the ruler of the land, the utopianistic Tsar Berendey (tenor) acts as a sort of Dench ex machina in Shakespeare in Love (or is it rather Frost in Love?) as arbiter of a wager that whomever can cause Snow Maiden to fall in love with him will receive a reward from the Tsar. However, she will not fall if the Wood Spirit (tenor) has anything to say about it. The action of the four acts actually occurs within a 24-hour period, which is probably why the first scene (which occurs earlier) is a prologue.

LOOK OUT FOR:

PROLOGUE: Red Hill. (43 minutes)

0, 5, 12, 16: The introduction ** presents several themes which will return in a relatively quiet but rapid succession (it is over in eighty seconds). The most important is a precocious theme which starts on the clarinet and then gets taken up by the bassoon which represents the Snow Maiden (but which is also similar to some of the later music sung by Lel). The first voice we hear is the Wood Spirit announcing the end of Winter and the arrival of Spring, who indirectly gives us some of the background: the land of the Berendey has been experiencing global freezing (a 15 year long winter, brought about by the existence of the Snow Maiden). She goes into a short aria about how lovely the weather is in southern countries **. She then goes into some relatively inappropriate details (in rather ordinary recitative) about her relationship with Zaddy Winter, resulting in the 15 year old Snowmaidan (not an error). This is followed by a cute chorus for the many children of Spring (whom I presume are birds?) *. Winter rebukes her furiously *. What ensues is more of an aria, but there are interjections from Spring, such as the suggestion that Snow Maiden be allowed to live where she wishes, with the humans. Zaddy Winter tells her that human love will cause the demise of Snow Maiden.

22: Snieg shows up and rejoices about being able to live with humans to some Italianate coloratura **. Even more so than its musical merits, the psychology of the scene is rather surprising: the teenaged Snieg is being asked what she wants and her parents allow it! Well, almost, Spring is fine with it (she really seems to not care) but Zaddy Winter is sure that this is no good (especially as Snieg is already making references to Lel, even though she seems to know fully know what those feelings actually are). Zaddy alerts Wood Spirit with orders that if any man tries anything with Snieg that he is to divert them. Affirmative says Wood Spirit.

32, 39: The Maslenitsa Chorus ***, the climax of the scene as we move on to the encampment (strangely, this is not normally a scene break. This is the Slavic Pantheistic celebration, not the later Orthodox baptized holiday: complete with an arioso for Maslenitsa himself (the bass). This is followed by the Bobyl/Bobylikha scene * which is a bit of comic relief. Bobby finds Snieg and she introduces herself to the humans rather shyly. After bidding adieu to her parents and Wood Spirit (who repeats her words) she is welcomed by the humans.

ACT 1: The Village of Berendeyevka. (37 minutes)

0: The entr’acte ** introduces a new theme on the clarinet (Lel) a melody that is a cross between a section of Meyerbeer (the prelude to the first act of Le Prophete and Benjamin Godard, the berceuse from the opera Jocelyn, although it is unlikely that Rimsky borrowed it from Meyerbeer since the Godard opera had yet to be composed). This opens up a scene in which Lel approaches Snieg, Bobyl mildly insults him, and then Bobyl and Bobylikha leave. Snieg asks for Lel to sing a song, Lel proposes a price: first a kiss, then settling for a flower.

6: The First Song of Lel *** brings Snieg to tears with its haunting clarinet backed melody (otherwise the accompaniment is notably minimal) so he switches gears.

10: The Second Song of Lel *** is much more joyous and more richly accompanied by the orchestra. This embarrasses Snieg, who is starting to realize that Lel is a player.

14: Alone, Snieg rebukes herself for allowing her strange emotions to overwhelm her and allow her to lower her guard **. The very lovely, haunting melody of hers saturates until the interruption by Kupava brings the action back into focus.

20: Kupava starts off the failed betrothal scene with a hymn about doves ** as Mizgir shows up and the chorus of maidens greets him.

27: Mizgir declares his love for Snieg **, she then notices that Lel is weeping and asks him why, he says that the day when she weeps she will learn why men weep.

30: Kupava accuses Snieg of stealing her man! ** Everyone tells her to go to Tsar Berendey as she condemns Snieg. Thankfully, Rimsky maintains the momentum musically to the end of the act.

ACT 2: A room in the palace of Tsar Berendey, later that day. (38 minutes)

0: The Hymn to Berendey **. Afterwards this is followed by a recitative between Berendey and Bermyata in which the two discuss how the winter has lasted for 15 solid years. A page announces the request for audience from Kupava.

11: Kupava makes her request that Mizgir be brought to justice over his breaking off their wedding *. Berendey orders his men to find Mizgir and bring him in for judgement. Two heralds (tenor and bass) are heard outside.

17: A cortege intermezzo ** followed by a cappella praises of Berendey led by Lel.

23: Snieg is brought in for questioning, her adopted parents have abandoned her to her fate *

25: Berendey remarks on the beauty of Snieg in an aria with a repeated brief theme in the viola ** (it is implied from the painting that he is in love with Spring, the mum of Snieg). He addresses her again, making references to her youth and how it might fade with time (which will not happen due to her approaching death). They also realize that she does not know what love is when she admits that she loves no one. Berendey then makes the wager, whomever can seduce Snieg will win both her and a financial reward from the Tsar himself. The female chorus thinks that Lel has a chance with her.

33: Lel embarks on a rather humiliating trial for Snieg *. Mizgir thinks he has a better chance. Berendey invites everyone to a ball. The act ends with a brief hymn to Jarilo.

ACT 3: A forest clearing, that evening. (32 minutes)

0: The entr’acte which opens up the dancing at the ball. There is a single theme which alternates between the chorus, Bobyl, Snieg, Lel, and the chorus for several minutes *.

4: The Third Song of Lel *** is followed by Tsar Berendey telling him to pick a maiden as his dance partner. To the shock of all, especially Snieg, he chooses Kupava. They then embrace in slow-mo.

12: An intermezzo leads to Snieg rebuking Lel for not loving her **. A charming, if sad, little aria.

17: The rape scene * is actually rather musically uneventful, in spite of the fact that Mizgir recounts a fairytale in the middle of it. It ends with the Wood Spirit beating the tar out of him. The scene is actually about how the Wood Spirit has Mizgir see multiple fake Sniegurochki, but this is lost, so the music makes less sense in this reinterpretation.

27: Kupava gets revenge on Snieg when she and Lel make fun of her by declaring their love **. Snieg attempts to confront them, but Lel tells her, how could he possibly love a child (which is what she is, after all). Snieg prays for the ability to love and the curtain falls.

ACT 4: The same, the following morning. (35 minutes)

0: The miserable prelude * returns the whole tone scale heard earlier in act three.

2, 8: Snieg calls upon her mum for help *. This prompts a good orchestral passage (notice the horn and xylophone). After a bit of exposition from Spring, Snieg admits ** that she now knows what love is and Spring tells her to hide in the woods, or otherwise Yarilo will melt her today! The orchestration here is brilliant.

16: The peacefulness is immediately killed by the return of Mizgir * and Snieg declares her love for him.

21, 25, 31: The rest of the act consists of a series of tableaux depicting worship of Yarilo, punctuated by the death of Snieg. First, the opening chorus **, rather explosive, as they all pair off for what appears to be a fertility ritual. Mizgir returns with Snieg (who is notably dying) to claim the wager from Berendey. Snieg gets one last aria before she melts ** and it is rather touching (the orchestration adds texture to what might otherwise be rather dull as she tries to declare her love for Lel one last time). She gets liquified, Mizgir declares war on the gods, and kills himself (off-stage). All that is left is for Berendey to order up a hymn to Yarilo in gratitude for the end of the 15 year long winter *** as the people dance over the puddle of Snieg. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

Oh boy, or should I say maiden? This opera has a lot of problems, but first let us get into what is great about it: the music and orchestration. The orchestration, as usual with Rimsky, is flawless. The score itself is wonderfully melodious, reflecting the fact that it was written at one of the happiest times in the life of the composer. The leitmotif system is simple to follow and sometimes stunning and the characters are all well serviced by the music afforded to them, including some of the finest music Rimsky ever wrote. The characterization of Snegurochka herself is transparent and touching, it is obvious that Rimsky loved this strange non-human but mortal creature. Unlike Sadko, she gets most of the best music (excluding the many songs of Lel and the closing chorus) and does not get upstaged otherwise.

However, this also leads into the transition of what is wrong with this opera, the characterization of Snegurochka is also as painful as frost bite, from her first appearance, and it only falls from there; the circumstances of act three only degrade things further, making one want the heroine to die more quickly because one rapidly realizes that literally no one (in the opera that is) actually loves her at all and until act three she doesn’t love anyone really either. The heroine should not actually exist, and, apart from theatrically, she does not. Her death is actually a blessing, as her life is itself an abomination against nature (represented by the 15 year long winter that has occurred since her birth). She is a totem for all the teenagers trying to figure out why they exist (or if they are also an abomination against nature), when in fact there is rarely little answer beyond two het people chose to have sex x-years ago, so now you are here. There is little love involved, painfully enough, and thinking this way is often times what leads to youth suicide (and the fact that life goes on in spite of it, represented by the triumphant Hymn to Yarilo over the corpse of Sniegoruchka). Somehow, Rimsky manages to inject at least some pathos into the music to make this all more bearable, because otherwise we come to the conclusion that we are, in fact, at one time at least Sniegoruchka ourselves, even though we spend most of our lives as Lel, Kupava, Mizgir, or Berendey.

On a side note, I wish there were more of Zaddy Winter.

The depiction of Mizgir (who is technically the male lead when one considers that Lel is supposed to be a contralto) does border into double-standard: why is an unsolicited declaration of love from a man to a woman considered assault when the same by a woman to a man is looked upon with pity if not as pathetic? Are not women also capable of stalking, of rape even? Snieg herself actually solicits Lel to love her multiple times, and it is seen with sympathy (although it falls on deaf ears), and this of a character who does not even know what her emotions even are? I fault Tcheriakov for injecting this bit of toxic-masculinity into the narrative when it actually isn’t there.

The opera is way over long and moves glacially (no pun) with a full eighty minutes of music before the first intermission comes. Even with what is in actuality a five act structure, there honestly is not enough plot here. The Prologue is longer than any of the individual acts taken separately, not only musically but also in terms of its section of the libretto, and much of it is dominated by the bickering two parents Zaddy Winter and Lady Spring. Another problem is that some of the episodes are actually dramatically meaningless and add nothing to the story at all, much as most of the choruses. Some episodes could be condensed or even combined (such as Lel and Kupava coming back to mock Snieg when she already knows about their relationship, the damage has already been done). When reviewing this, I had to take it one scene at a time because of how dense it all is, as it is actually exhausting. Good, but exhausting, and I now know why it took me so many years to finally get around to reviewing it, it draws too much out of us psychologically. A beta plus, maybe alpha minus.

Snegurochka, Victor Vasnetsov, 1899.

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