Under the direction of the outstanding conductor Eduard Nápravník (1839–1916) the Mariinsky Theatre experienced a truly golden age. Nápravník, who was Principal Conductor for almost half a century, from 1869 to 1916, was able to establish and reform many administrative procedures that affected the quality of the performances. Gustav Mahler, who conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra during a visit to St Petersburg in 1907, wrote to his friends that "... the orchestra here is simply magnificent and reminds me of the one in Vienna."
Although members of the Mighty Handful criticised Nápravník – and not without justification - of a lack of sympathy for new Russian music, the premieres of many of their operas took place specifically at the Mariinsky Theatre. Under Nápravník's direction there were productions of Boris Godunov, The Maid of Pskov, The Snow Maiden and May Night, as well as many operas by Tchaikovsky with whom he was great friends. "In old Russia the style of performing Tchaikovsky for a long time was defined by the wise and harmonious conducting of Eduard Nápravník, somewhat emotionally restrained but not without the charms of the intimacy of Tchaikovsky's music," wrote music historian Boris Asafiev.
A great professional and a "fine workman" (as the conductor was called by Stasov), Nápravník was also engaged in composition. He wrote four operas, three symphonies and symphonic and chamber works. The opera Dubrovsky after the tale by Pushkin was the most successful of them all.
The composer worked on the opera during a break from the theatre, in the summer of 1893 and in 1894. To write the libretto he invited Modest Tchaikovsky, a librettist to whom fame came following his work on the operas Iolanta and The Queen of Spades. If for Pushkin the romantic plot in the spirit of Walter Scott with the Robin-Hood-style protagonist, a ring within the hollow of an oak and other characteristic details was to be just the starting point in creating an original narrative, then the librettist reproduced romantic collisions in great seriousness. The finale, too, was changed: instead of the protagonists bidding farewell in the forest (Masha has married Prince Vereisky and cannot break her oath) the wounded Dubrovsky dies in the arms of his beloved. Dubrovsky turned out to be closer to the operatic Eugene Onegin than to Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, literally reproducing the text of Pushkin's short tragedy. In the music there is a noticeable similarity to Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, the first performance of which was conducted by Nápravník in 1890, not long before he created his own opus.
Following the warmly-met premiere, which took place on 3 January 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre under the baton of the composer, the opera entered the repertoires of several Russian theatres at the same time. Dubrovsky continued to be performed in the Soviet period, too. Today the opera has all but vanished from the stage, and the chance to hear it is a rare triumph.