Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Libretto by Vladimir Belsky, after a Russian legend
The Synopsys of the opera is published in Dmitry Tcherniakov’s interpretation
Praise of the Hermitage
Mid-summer. Birds are singing, a cuckoo is crying. Eventide Maiden Fevroniya has lived in a hermitage in a thick forest since her childhood. Birds and beasts – a Crane, a Bear and an Aurochs – come up when they hear her voice. Prince Vsevolod, son of the ruler of Greater Kitezh Prince Yury, is lost during a hunting tour. He is amazed by a vision of Fevronia talking to beasts. Is it not a delusion? But Fevroniya welcomes the guest taking him for the young prince's huntsman.
Vsevolod must hurry because it is getting dark and his arm, injured by bear's claws, bleeds. Fevroniya carefully washes the wound and applies forest herbs to it. Vladimir, struck by his miraculous healing, asks Fevroniya about her solitary life in the dense forest. Fevroniya describes her simple and poor life, mentioning her hardships during a cold winter. She tells about the long-awaited coming of spring when nature blossoms and the voices of vernal birds evoke charming golden dreams in her. She has a vision of the transformation of nature into God's Church – a prophecy which is destined to come true.
At first Vsevolod listens to her unusual account with a doubt. But gradually Fevroniya's animated stories about divine joy fascinate him. The delighted prince offers her his hand and heart in marriage. On hearing huntsmen's voices the prince says goodbye to Fevroniya. She is confused – if she follows Vsevolod to Greater Kitezh, she will have to leave her hermitage in the forest, her birds and beasts.
The huntsmen looking for the prince with Feodor Poyarok at the head appear and Fevroniya learns from them who her guest was.
Crowds of people at the marketplace. Beggars are asking for alms, boys are scurrying about. The hard drinker Grishka Kuterma amuses the crowd. A usual scene of urban life. But people are especially agitated today: Fevroniya, the young prince's bride, is going to pass through the city.
An old man prophesies a terrible disaster and devastation which are to befell their land. People in the crowd are scared at first but later they ignore the prophecy as ungrounded – there is nothing to promise such a disaster. The "best people" (the well-off inhabitants of Kitezh) watch the agitated crowd with an indignation – Vsevolod insulted them by choosing a bride of humble origin.
They give money to the drunkard Grishka Kuterma and tell him to humiliate Fevroniya. Grishka is happy to deride anybody. At last Fevroniya arrives accompanied by Feodor Poyarok. The crowd greets her. The drunk Grishka tries to push his way through the crowd to Fevroniya, but people would not let him, Fevroniya defends the drunkard. Kuterma insults her mocking at her humble origin. She answers him sincerely and meekly showing a compassion to the heavy drinker. Grishka feels perplexed, but then he gets angry and cries loudly about misery and humiliation awaiting Fevroniya.
Poyarok suggests to begin a song of praise thus overcoming a general disarray. But the song is broken abruptly. The old man's prophecy comes true: Batu Khan's hordes led by Bediay and Burunday are bursting into the city. The Tartars kill the horror-stricken people, capture Fevroniya and blind Feodor Poyarok.
Nobody would like to show the road to Greater Kitezh. Only Grishka who has lost his head from fear of tortures agrees to act as the Tartars' guide. Fevroniya prays to God entreating Him to make the city invisible.
At midnight all the inhabitants of Greater Kitezh, young and old, gather to learn about their future destiny. They cluster round Feodor Poyarok who has reached the city together with the young prince. His account of the terrible disaster – the capture of Lesser Kitezh by the Tartars without any resistance – horrifies them. No less shocking is the news that, according to rumours, the prince's bride Fevroniya herself is guiding the Tartars to Greater Kitezh. The people are greatly discouraged.
The elderly prince Yury is mournful. The prayers of the inhabitants of Greater Kitezh are alternated with omens. The Youth sees a burning city and rivers of blood flowing from its gates, This vision is replaced by a picture of the devastated Kitezh and eventually the Youth has a vision of the empty bank of Lake Svetly Yar shrouded by mist – the city disappears from the earth.
The people of Kitezh are getting ready to die. Prince Vsevolod calls men into a field, to give a fight to the enemy. The princely host departs to meet the inevitable death. Only wives, mothers and children remain in the city. They bid farewell to one another.
Church bells begin to ring by themselves and mist obscures the city covering it, as it were, with a dense shroud.
On the threshold of death or a new life, the sorrowful mood of the Kitezh people is replaced by a feeling of joy.
The battle at the Kerzhenets River
The princely host perishes in the bloody battle against the Tartars. Vsevolod, who has received forty wounds, dies.
Bank of Lake Svetly Yar
Pitch-dark night. The opposite bank where Greater Kitezh stands is shrouded in mist. Grishka guides the Tartars to the lake. Bedyay and Burunday suspect that Kuterma deliberately misleads them and threaten to punish him unless they see the city tomorrow morning. The Tartars tie him to a tree for the night and begin to divide the booty. Burunday demands that Fevroniya be given to him. A quarrel begins and as a result Burundai kills Bedyay, The entire camp of the tired nomads falls asleep. Fevroniya laments the death of Vsevolod. Kuterma is tortured by a fear of death and an unceasing ringing of the Kitezh bells which seems to sound in his ears. Calling Fevroniya he implores her to save him, but she is afraid of the Tartars' punishment. Grishka avows that he spread a rumour about her leading the Tartars to Kitezh and therefore she has no need to care for her life.
Fevroniya is struck and frightened by the darkness of Grishka's soul, but his complaints still make her cut the ropes. She releases Grishka to let him atone for his sin of treachery by prayer. Kuterma is so frightened that he is unable to run. In despair he wants to drown himself in the lake but a vision in the dawn's early light startles him – he sees the empty bank and a reflected image of the city on the surface of the lake. The festive pealing of the bells gets louder. Kuterma loses his wit and rushes to the forest taking Fevroniya with him.
His cries awake the Tartars. On seeing the invisible city of Kitezh reflected in the water they run away in horror.
An impassable thicket in the Kitezh forest
Dark night, Fevroniya, who has become weak after making her way through the thicket for many days, is followed by Grishka. Grishka acts as a madman. Unable to get rid of the sense of fear he now returns to his former insulting tone and now complains with tears in his eyes. Fevroniya teaches him to pray to Mother-Earth, but Grishka seems to see the devils everywhere and eventually runs away into the thicket with wild cries.
Fevroniya calls Grishka but does not receive an answer.
She remains alone. The exhausted Fevroniya lies down on the grass and awaits her death. She plunges into a blissful state – tiredness and pain have left her. All the prophesies she has told to Vsevolod during their first meeting come true in a mysterious way. At the moment her soul is leaving earthly life she sees the transfiguration of the forest into God's Church, notices the emergence of Paradise flowers and hears the voices of prophetic birds. The Alkonost bird is singing about death, calm and mercy while the Sirin bird is chanting about joy and eternal life.
Fevroniya meets her dead bridegroom Vsevolod, Having regained her force, she rushes to him. He gives a piece of bread to her – this is the communion bread. They have a distant way ahead and she must fortify herself.
Fevroniya throws crumbs to forest birds.
The way to the Invisible City
The Assumption ringing is getting louder and louder.
The Sirin and Akonost birds are singing about the new heaven, new earth and about the kingdom of light that cannot be described in words.
The Invisible City
Fevroniya and Vsevolod enter the miraculously transformed city of Kitezh. Everything is bathed in light. Fevroniya, through joyful tears, looks at the happy inhabitants of Kitezh. She sees Prince Yury, the Youth and Feodor Poyarok who has regained his sight. She recognizes the wedding song – the one they began to sing at Lesser Kitezh. Beside herself with happiness, Fevroniya fails to understand why this joy has been given to her. She marvels at the bright light and the whiteness of the garments. Prince Yury answers that the light comes from prayers of the righteous and ascend to heaven in fiery shafts, and the white vestments are washed by the tears of martyrs. Fevroniya lacks the only thing in this harmony – she feels a pity for Grishka who remains in the thicket.
She would like him to join them in the city. But his time has not come as yet. Fevroniya writes a letter to Grishka informing him that Kitezh has not been captured and its residents have not died and are now abiding in a divine place. Fevroniya's letter is a good news indicating the way to the invisible city.
Vsevolod and Fevroniya, accompanied by the pealing of bells and the song of eternal joy, are going to the cathedral to get married.
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia was Rimsky-Korsakov’s last grand epic opera. Its lengthy title in itself is a reference to bylina legends and their unhurried and poetically imagistic syllables. It is believed that the most important words in the title are “invisible” and “maiden”. In the closing years of his life, which came at the start of the Time of Troubles in Russia, the composer gave a great deal of thought to the dramatic destiny of his homeland and already foresaw the new trials it would have to endure. He wrote of the “stuffy and anxious conditions” that perturbed him and had daydreams of the “invisible”, meaning the spectrally idealistic, lost in the bylina fairy-tale past of a “virginal and sacred Russia”. In the philosophy of this opera (and it should be regarded specifically as a philosophical work) there are many allusions and subtexts. The plot itself is mythological and in its essence resembles parables in the Bible: it is the story of the strength of human nature spiritualised through faith. The kind of strength that overcomes the devilish “undead” (Rimsky-Korsakov’s own words) through sincerity and earnestness of faith. It is not by chance, therefore, that half of the opera’s plot is taken up with prayer, collective or mysteriously confessional. And the entire intonational structure of Kitezh is as if looking deep into the primordial and sacral principals of “the Russian soul”. In this later period of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov was at the peak of his creative maturity, but was constantly updating his musical language. He wrote “I feel that I am entering some new period and that I have mastered a technique which hitherto seemed to me to be something of chance...” Here he was speaking of a special manner of vocal composition, closely resembling ancient Christian chants, free of the pressures of Western European classical harmony. It is in Kitezh that the results of these endeavours were to be fully embodied, in both the large chorus scenes and in the soloists’ monologues.
The premiere of the opera took place on 7 February 1907 at the Mariinsky Theatre and proved a tremendous success, having been preceded by a year and a half of tense rehearsals. Many ideas of the sixty-three-year-old composer seemed extremely radical even to the younger generation of performers and once, leaving a rehearsal, Rimsky-Korsakov exclaimed “My legs will not step foot in this theatre again.” A common language was nevertheless found and the composer lavished praise on the fruits of their difficult joint labour.
The theatre subsequently turned to Kitezh on several occasions: there were productions in 1910, 1918, 1958, 1994 and, most recently, the current one of 2001. Stage director Dmitry Chernyakov used several elements of the designs from the first production, for example the picturesque curtains by Korovin and Vasnetsov. But the innovative spirit inherent in him also came through in this piece. Already at the outset of the plot, the sets of the forest clearing where Fevronia lives captivate the audience with the video sequence of surprising and fairy-tale-like beauty. They are so bizarre that they immediately transport the audience to other times and places, to the idealistic world of the Russian epos. The image of Little Kitezh is depicted differently – as a receptacle of worldly vanities. It brings to mind a certain station buffet with its typical poverty and restlessness. Ultimately, in the finale, the stage director brilliantly visualises the metaphor for the transformation of the human spirit – the path of the redemption of sin and the ascension from worldly decay into the kingdom of heavenly light.
Dmitry Chernyakov sees the enemy from without as the enemy from within, implanted into weak souls, helpless before the temptations of vice. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov’s anxious presentiments may well be seen in today’s Russia. That is why the composer’s grandiose spiritual work that forms the score of Kitezh even today remains current and even topical. Why this happens is something the stage director considers in his production.
Sponsored by the Mariinsky Theatre Trust (UK)
World premiere: 7 February 1907, Mariinsky Theatre
Premiere of this production: 20 January 2001
Running time: 4 hours 50 minutes
The performance has three intervals
The highlighting of performances by age represents recommendations.
This highlighting is being used in accordance with Federal Law N436-FZ dated 29 December 2010 (edition dated 1 May 2019) "On the protection of children from information that may be harmful to their health"