|About this Recording
2.110277-78 - RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (The) (Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, 2008) (NTSC)
Opera in Four Acts
Prince Yury Vsevolodovich - Mikhail Kazakov
Unrivalled in his day as a master of orchestral tone colour, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was self-critical to a fault. As a composer he practised what he preached as a teacher: only use instruments through need, and not because they seem to be a nice idea. Writing about The Invisible City of Kitezh in the summer of 1904, the jaundiced-sounding composer told his librettist: ‘I destroyed the second tuba, and I traded flauto alto for the ordinary flute. These instruments…were oppressing me and did not give me peace. And I still have to compose what is missing in Act 3. Somehow I have come to dislike composing. It is obviously time to give up this occupation. Don’t despair: I will finish Kitezh, anyhow.’
Rimsky-Korsakov and his librettist, Vladimir Belsky, had been attracted to the Kitezh legend as far back as the winter of 1898–9, but this project remained on the back burner for several years. In October 1902, however, the composer’s friend Vasily Yastrebtsev wrote: ‘Today, Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that he is writing an opera from the times of the Tartar rule over old Russia, that is on the subject of The Invisible City of Kitezh.’ The following spring, Yastrebtsev further related that Rimsky-Korsakov had now revealed the general content of his new opera and added that the libretto by Belsky drew partly on the famous novels In the Woods and On the Mountains by Melnikov-Pechersky, and the legend of Saint Fevronya of Murom.
The original Kitezh story describes how the advancing Mongol horde reaches the town of Great Kitezh to find its defenceless citizens fervently praying and asking God for redemption. The army attacks, but is soon forced to retreat as countless fountains spring from the ground and submerge the town in a huge lake. In the hagiographical legend of Fevronya of Murom, we are told a moving story about a duke and a humble beekeeper’s daughter, who are turned into a symbol of eternal love.
Belsky made free use of all these literary and legendary elements as he prepared the libretto for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, which bears the unwieldy full title of The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya. The result is an amalgam of folklore and Christian mystery, with a heavy dose of pantheism and patriotism thrown in. These last two factors were what saved Kitezh from being heavily sanitised during the Soviet era, though an overhaul of the plot was proposed by the Symbolist-poet- turned-Bolshevik-revolutionary, Sergey Gorodetsky, who particularly disliked Prince Yury’s piety. He had already made significant alterations to the libretto of Glinka’s Life for the Tsar.
The miracle that saves Kitezh from the horde is clearly effected by the Christian God (church bells ring spontaneously), but this is offset by many pantheistic elements. For instance, in Act 1 Fevronya is asked if she goes to church. Her reply—that God is everywhere, and that the forest is like a vast church where the Eucharist is continuously celebrated—is but one example of theological sidestepping in this opera, which treats Christianity as a fascinating aspect of folklore, albeit an important one. Rimsky-Korsakov was, after all, a man who rejected theology. He believed that experimental investigation and observation are the only sources of substantial knowledge. It seems likely, therefore, that he overrode any overtly Christian elements that Belsky might initially have proposed.
From the outset, librettist and composer had quite different views about handling the dramatic nature of the plot. Belsky had in mind a static work, full of imagery and detailed examination of the states of mind of the leading characters, which would be explored along Wagnerian lines. Rimsky-Korsakov, however, did not have any great affection for Wagner, despite the oft-repeated remark that Kitezh is a Russian Parsifal (the miracle music, for example, does contain echoes of the Good Friday music in Parsifal). He had to work hard to ensure that his conception of a more ‘realistic’ opera would prevail and that no ‘liturgical’ longueurs would hold back the action. Each time he suggested a change to the scenario he would end his request with a diplomatic plea. One example appears in a letter to Belsky written in May 1904: ‘Will you permit this, my strict, cruel librettist?’ Part of the difficulty for the two men lay in the title itself. After all, the word ‘legend’ has etymological connotations with reading, which is an activity that is contemplative rather than dramatic. Furthermore, Belsky wished to inject period flavour by having some characters speak in old-fashioned Russian, replete with archaic colloquialisms, while others would speak in Old Church Slavonic. Rimsky- Korsakov was far from happy, for he had no intention of writing an old-fashioned opera. On the contrary, he wished to produce a modern work fit for the early twentieth century: ‘I do not think Kitezh will be a backward-looking opera, but one that is contemporary and even fairly advanced.’
Unlike most Russian operas, Kitezh is through-composed and strongly symphonic at times. As a consequence, individual vocal numbers cannot be readily extracted and performed as free-standing pieces. Singers and orchestral musicians alike are all treated as part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone-painting. A masterly example occurs with the repeated tolling of bells from the vanished city. This idea was fixed in the composer’s mind from early on, for in the summer of 1903 he told Belsky that ‘the opera will end with a piano tremolo F major chord on the bells. It will be necessary to try this out in advance with the bells of the Maryinsky Theatre.’ Such is the orchestra’s rôle in highlighting the events on stage that it has even been described as ‘the real main character’ of the opera. It is interesting to note that while Rimsky-Korsakov was adding the finishing touches to Kitezh in the summer of 1905, he was again working on his Principles of Orchestration, which he had first started writing about thirty years earlier. In their own very different ways, both Stravinsky and Rachmaninov were influenced by the ideas contained in this manual.
Act 1 of Kitezh was performed at Rimsky- Korsakov’s home in November 1906. The piano reduction of the orchestral score was played by the composer’s pupil and son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg, who, in 1912, would complete his late teacher’s Principles of Orchestration. The first staged production of the whole opera took place at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 20 February 1907 (new style). The occasion was a great success. Nevertheless, critics and audience were nonplussed by the opera’s unfamiliar blend of mysticism and realism. Even the producer was troubled by Rimsky-Korsakov’s decision to employ a dramatic soprano to portray the ‘light, ethereal, disembodied’ figure of Fevronya. Following the Moscow première in March 1908, audiences continued to be perplexed by what they perceived as ‘clashes’ between idealism and realism. Yet it has been argued that such an apparent confusion of incompatible elements was, to some degree, a reflection of current events. Rimsky-Korsakov was profoundly disillusioned by the unsuccessful 1905 revolution. Initially describing himself as ‘bright red’, he supported the rioting students and was suspended from his teaching post. Former friends and colleagues, such as César Cui and Mily Balakirev, now denounced him for his offensive solidarity with ‘vandals and hooligans’.
Kitezh was soon eclipsed in popularity by Rimsky-Korsakov’s next and final opera, The Golden Cockerel, but it eventually made its way westwards. In 1926 Albert Coates (who was born in St Petersburg) conducted it in London at a performance that was broadcast by the BBC from Covent Garden.
© Anthony Short, 2011
In Praise of the Wilderness
Orchestral ‘hymn’ depicting the scenery of the forest.
Kerzhensky Forest, near the town of Little Kitezh, by the Volga
The dense forest is home to Fevronya, a dreamy and poetical daughter of nature, who lives in total harmony with the birds and wild animals, and knows all the mysteries of the forest. One day she meets a young prince who has been hunting and has lost his way. He is Vsevolod, son of Prince Yury of Kitezh, and he falls for her beauty, though he fears there must be some black magic behind someone who is so supernaturally beautiful. Nevertheless, he is captivated by her spirituality and love of nature. They sing a love duet, during which he places a ring on her finger and asks her to be his wife and go with him to Great Kitezh. They are interrupted by the distant sounds of Vsevolod’s hunting party. He bids her farewell and goes to find the party, while she discovers the name and rank of her betrothed.
The market place of Little Kitezh, on the left bank of the Volga
The local populace is rejoicing because the wedding procession of Princess Fevronya is expected to pass by. The wealthy townsfolk think Prince Yury is marrying beneath his rank, and they bribe a cynical local drunkard Grishka Kuterma (who will stop at nothing for a bit of cash) to insult Fevronya. The procession approaches, and Grishka interferes as best he can, but is driven away. The innocent Fevronya reminds everyone of their duty to be kind to all men, even those like Grishka. The merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt as Little Kitezh is surrounded by an army of invading Tartars, who destroy everything. They carry off Fevronya and also capture Grishka, who is forced to lead the Tartars to Great Kitezh, which is fabled for its great wealth.
Cathedral Square in Great Kitezh
Hearing of the invasion, the people of Great Kitezh gather in the main square. Prince Vsevolod’s huntsman, Fyodor Poyarok, whom the Tartars have blinded, tells them of the atrocities committed at Little Kitezh. He warns the citizens that it is said to be Fevronya herself who is guiding their enemies. Faced with the terrible prospect of murder, pillage, rape and destruction, the townspeople implore God’s help. While Prince Yury prays, his son, Prince Vsevolod, calls on the citizens to prepare for battle. Then a miracle occurs: the church bells start to toll of their own accord, a golden mist rises over the lake, and the city becomes invisible to the enemy.
The Battle of Kerzhenets
Following a fierce battle, the Tartars defeat Vsevolod’s army, and the prince bleeds to death from forty wounds.
Shore of Lake Yar opposite Great Kitezh, at night
After trekking through the wilderness, Grishka brings the Tartars almost to Great Kitezh, but because the mist hides the city on the other side of the lake, the Tartars accuse him of treachery and tie him to a tree, intending to kill him in the morning if it becomes clear that he has led them astray. Meanwhile they share out their loot. Two of the Tartar chieftains, Burunday and Bedyay, quarrel over Fevronya. Bedyay is slain, but Burunday is too drunk to profit from his victory. Before repairing to bed for the night, the drunken Tartars sing a dismal song about ravens flocking to carnage. Burunday unsuccessfully tries to lure Fevronya to him, and then accuses her of coldness. Fevronya laments the death of Vsevolod, her betrothed. Grishka, tormented by fear and remorse, begs Fevronya to cover his ears because he is haunted by the tolling bells of Kitezh, which remind him of his guilt. He confesses that he wrongly accused Fevronya of betraying the country. She is alarmed by the possibility that Grishka might be the Antichrist, but he pleads he is nothing other than a boozy good-for-nothing, who has been let down by life. The fault is not his, he says, but God’s. Fevronya reproves him for complaining in such a manner. She releases him, however, believing that kindness will heal his soul. He is briefly beside himself with joy, but then he becomes deranged and determines to drown himself in the lake. He stops at the shore, however, because although the city remains invisible, its reflection can be seen in the water, and the bells ring out ever louder. He loses all remaining reason and escapes deep into the forest, taking Fevronya with him. The Tartars are also stricken with fear by the sight. They, too, take flight.
Kerzhenets Forest, at night
Grishka continues to rail insanely at himself and Fevronya. She prays for his soul, begging God to spare him even the tiniest bit of love, but she also urges Grishka to show a little humility. Tortured by a mixture of demonic visions and his own guilt, Grishka rushes off into the forest. Fevronya is now alone in the kind of forest setting she knows so well. She sings of its verdant charms, and the forest is transformed into a supernaturally beautiful place. She hears the voice of Alkonost, a bird of paradise, who tells Fevronya to prepare to be a servant of God, for death comes to everyone she sings to. The ghost of Vsevolod appears. They sing together knowing that they will never be parted. The voice of Sirin, another bird of paradise, is heard. She says that everyone she sings to will enjoy eternal life.
Symphonic Interlude (with voices of Sirin and Alkonost)
Walk to the invisible city
Fevronya and Vsevolod walk towards the invisible city of Great Kitezh. Sirin and Alkonost promise everlasting life and heavenly bliss in a new kingdom.
Great Kitezh appears, having wondrously risen again in all its opulent magnificence, transformed into paradise. Sirin and Alkonost protect all the inhabitants who were slaughtered by the Tartars. These people pay homage to Fevronya and Vsevolod, and they complete the singing of the wedding hymn that was interrupted when the Tartars first appeared in Act 1. Only one thing disturbs Fevronya in her heavenly joy, and that is the fate of Grishka. She asks Poyarok, Prince Vsevolod’s huntsman, to write a note to Grishka telling him of the miracle and wishing him God’s blessing.
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