Two interwoven love triangles, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, flight, a sorcerer, poison, two murders, sheer craziness and ominous thunder as the curtain falls: The Enchantress has the full range of tried and tested tricks of 19th century Romantic opera. The Enchantress was written by a great composer then at the peak of his creative genius and by a popular playwright trying his hand at a libretto for the first time. This circumstance was to define the opera's outer appearance, its music brilliant from the overture to the very finale, though in terms of its own qualities the dramaturgy does not always match the music. The characters, their emotions and their relationships are written subtly, in depth and with animation; the situations in which the characters find themselves often seem to audiences – particularly those of the present day – to be overly melodramatic. This trait of The Enchantress was to make itself felt on its none-too-happy on-stage destiny. Regardless of the fact that in musical terms it cedes nothing to either Eugene Onegin, composed almost one decade before, or The Queen of Spades, written three years later, it is not often to be heard on the operatic stage.
The Enchantress was Tchaikovsky's favourite brainchild, and he dedicated two years of hard work to it (1885–1887) while on the picturesque estate of Maidanovo where the composer had rented the mansion house. Tchaikovsky's correspondence and diaries document the various stages of the work which at times raised him to elated delight and at others left him a nervous wreck. The composer did not possess a completed libretto: Ippolit Spazhinsky sent it to him in instalments, and Tchaikovsky in his own letters to the former would set out his wishes. On 20 October 1887 the premiere took place at the Mariinsky Theatre; the first four performances were conducted by the composer. Among those performing the vocal roles were outstanding Mariinsky Theatre singers including Ivan Melnikov (the Prince), Maria Slavina (the Princess) and Fyodor Stravinsky (Mamyrov). The opera was not a success and was performed just twelve times. The failure was a deep blow to Tchaikovsky; in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck he wrote "I remain absolutely steadfast in my conviction that The Enchantress is my finest opera, and yet it is soon to be shelved in the archives."
The Enchantress' rightful place indeed is not in any archive but on the theatre stage today. Love and freedom – its two principal themes – are among those that may be categorised as "eternal". The Enchantress is almost a treatise on various forms of love. Kuma's love for the Young Prince is the transformative, reckless and all-encompassing love of an independent young woman. The Young Prince's love for Kuma is the first fervent love of a youth who through this love spurns his parents to the point of renunciation. The Prince's love for Kuma is almost brutish, tortuous, the suffocating passion of a cruel man, no-longer-young, who has become inured to violence. The marital love of the Prince and the Princess is crushed by both of them: by him through lasciviousness and by her through vengeful jealousy. The maternal love of the Princess for the Young Prince turns her soul inside out, and in the "frenzied aristocrat" (Tchaikovsky's words) at the last minute we succeed in catching a glimpse of a mother weeping for her lost child.
The theme of love is almost always connected with the theme of liberty. The love of Kuma and the Young Prince can only exist in conditions of absolute freedom – from class distinctions and from the arbitrariness of the parents. The reverse also holds true, lack of freedom resulting in hatred and violence, which the Prince commits in his enslavement to his "love" and which the Princess and Mamyrov commit in their enslavement to their "honour".
British opera director David Pountney staged The Enchantress in Lisbon in 2003, bringing the production to St Petersburg that same year. For him, the Tchaikovsky-Spazhinsky opera is a "'domestic' play constructed on a massive scale", the plot of which is not tied to a specific time in history and which can be enacted wherever and whenever. Domestic abuse existed in the 15th century, and it was still happening in Tchaikovsky's time, neither has it vanished today. Denuded of its ethnographic details, the story of the freedom-loving Volga enchantress is transformed into "a series of major melodramatic collisions between a husband, a wife, her indulged son, 'a family friend', a half-crazed aunt and an old man à la Rasputin" (David Pountney). It is not a noble tower house and a widow's little cottage that are being compared, but a respectable and respected house alongside a brothel; it transpires that one destroys the other, and in one sense the morals of the bordello even outshine those of everyday family life. The production has been designed using just three colours – red, black and white – the unambiguous symbolism of which underscores the director's idea. Despite the laconic nature of the sets – the same white walls, one tree instead of an entire forest as per the original libretto – the production is vivid and visually rich. "Those who listen and look will leave the theatre amazed, and yet reconciled and satisfied," Tchaikovsky wrote to Spazhinsky. Audiences today, in addition to the direct emotional impressions promised by the composer and the librettist, will also receive important messages from the production team and the brilliantly depicted allusions which are so interesting to read and decipher. Khristina Batyushina