The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh

opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Performed in Russian (the performance will have synchronised Russian and English supertitles)
 

World premiere: 7 February 1907, Mariinsky Theatre
Premiere of the new revision of the 1994 production: 24 December 2022


Running time: 4 hours 10 minutes
The performance has two intervals

Age category: 12+

Credits

Music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Libretto by Vladimir Belsky, after a Russian legend

Musical Director: Valery Gergiev
Director: Alexei Stepanyuk
Set Designer: Alexei Stepanyuk
Costume Designer: Irina Cherednikova
Lighting Designer: Yegor Kartashov
Video designer: Vadim Dulenko
Plastic Assistant: Ilya Ustyantsev
Musical Preparation: Grigory Yakerson
Principal Chorus Master: Konstantin Rylov
Assistants Director: Ilya Ustyantsev, Kristina Larina, Mikhail Smirnov

SYNOPSIS

Introduction. Praise to the Wilderness

Act One
Scene One
In the remote forests near Little Kitezh, Fevroniya lives in harmony with animals and birds, far from people. Her solitary life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of a wounded hunter. The young man, dressed as a huntsman, curiously inquires about her life. Who is she, capable of stopping blood from a wound and peacefully conversing with wild beasts? And to which god does she pray if she does not visit the church? “Isn't God everywhere?” Fevroniya gently replies. “The great church is here.” Her convictions and love for all living things captivate the stranger. Their conversation turns into a love duet. The guest places a ring on Fevroniya's finger, and they are now betrothed. The young man leaves, promising to send matchmakers. When hunters led by Fyodor Poyarok, searching for their comrade, appear at Fevroniya's hut, she learns that the stranger, to whom she is betrothed, is Prince Vsevolod, the son of Prince Yuri, ruler of Great Kitezh.

Act Two
Scene Two
Little Kitezh on the left bank of the Volga. The crowd gathers in the marketplace, awaiting the wedding procession. A bear tamer shows off his trained bear, making it mimic “how bell-ringer Pahomushka leisurely goes to church” and how he hurries home. A gusli player sings a mournful ballad about the Tatar invasion. The “better people” (wealthy citizens of Kitezh) are displeased that a commoner will become their princess. Seeing the drunkard Grishka Kuterma, they incite him to insult Fevroniya upon her arrival. Soon, the wedding cart arrives in the square, with Fevroniya accompanied by Fyodor Poyarok, the groom's best man. An intoxicated Grishka mockingly greets the bride, reminding her that they are both of humble origins. Fevroniya humbly agrees and bows to all the citizens of Kitezh. But Grishka continues, predicting poverty and humiliation for her. The outraged crowd chases away the drunkard. Poyarok calls on the girls to sing a wedding song for the bride. Their singing is interrupted by distant horn sounds. The alarmed citizens listen and despair: the Tatars have attacked Kitezh, sparing no one. Grishka and Fevroniya are captured. The Tatar warriors Bedyay and Burunday, leading the attack, demand the prisoners show them the way to Great Kitezh. The cowardly Grishka agrees. Fevroniya prays for the city's salvation.

Act Three
Scene Three
Great Kitezh. Citizens gather in the square to hear the blinded Fyodor Poyarok. He tells of the fall of Little Kitezh and warns of danger to Great Kitezh. Rumors suggest that Fevroniya is leading the Tatars to the city. Prince Yuri calls for prayers. Prince Vsevolod asks for blessings and leads his warriors into battle. As bells toll, the city becomes shrouded in mist.

The Battle at Kerzhenets
The Russian army is defeated in the battle at the Kerzhenets River.

Scene Four
Grishka leads the Tatars to the shore of Lake Svetloyar. But why can't they see Great Kitezh on the other side? Deciding to wait for dawn, the Tatars tie up Grishka and start dividing the spoils. Boasting about their victory over the Kitezh warriors, they mention the death of Prince Vsevolod. A dispute erupts between Bedyay and Burunday over who will possess Fevroniya. In the heat of the argument, Burunday kills his rival. Fevroniya mourns her betrothed in anguish. Suddenly, she is addressed by Grishka. Kuterma pleads for release so he can repent for his betrayal. Fevroniya unties his ropes. Grishka intends to flee, but he imagines hearing the bells of Kitezh. In despair, he tries to throw himself into the lake but stops, rooted to the shore. At dawn, Grishka sees the empty far bank, while the reflection of invisible Kitezh appears on the water's surface. The festive ringing grows louder; Kuterma loses his sanity and runs away, dragging Fevroniya with him.

Act Four
Scene Five
Fevroniya and the delirious Grishka wander through the Kerzhenets marshes. Unable to endure the torments of conscience and terrifying visions, Kuterma flees. Exhausted, Fevroniya collapses on the grass, calling for the deliverer of death. Unseen flowers bloom around her, voices of heavenly birds prophesy peace and happiness. She sees her deceased betrothed. Fevroniya rushes to meet him. Prince Vsevolod reveals that Kitezh and its inhabitants did not perish but became invisible. The young couple set off for the invisible city, accompanied by the heavenly birds Sirin and Alkonost.
Scene Six
In the miraculously transformed city square, the survivors of Kitezh welcome the couple. They sing the wedding song left unfinished in Little Kitezh. However, Fevroniya remembers the unfortunate, unrepentant Grishka, who is not destined to enter the magical city. She dictates a message to Poyarok, which the Messenger will deliver to the wayward sinner. Only after this is Fevroniya ready to join Prince Vsevolod, hand in hand, in eternal joy.

“The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya” is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's last grand epic opera. Its lengthy title beckons to bylinas (Russian epic tales), with their leisurely, poetically vivid style. The key words in this title are “invisible” and “maiden”. In the final years of his life, coinciding with the onset of tumultuous times in Russia, the composer deeply pondered the dramatic fate of his homeland and sensed the impending trials it was to endure. He wrote of the “oppressive, anxious states” that troubled him, dreaming of an “invisible” or phantom and idealistic Russia lost in a mythical and folkloric past – a “virgin holy Rus”. The opera's philosophy (which should indeed be approached as a philosophical work) contains many allusions and subtexts. Its plot is mythological, fundamentally akin to Biblical parables: a tale of the power of human nature, animated by faith. A power that (in Rimsky-Korsakov's own words) overcomes demonic "undead" through the sincerity and fervour of faith. Therefore, it's no coincidence that half of the opera's action consists of prayers, collective or secretly confessional. The entire tonal structure of “Kitezh” seems to peer deeply into the primordial, sacred foundations of the “Russian spirit”. In this last period of his life Rimsky-Korsakov was at the peak of his creative maturity but constantly engaged in renewing his musical language. He wrote, “I feel that I am entering a new period and that I am mastering a technique which so far has been somewhat accidental to me…” He refers to a unique style of vocal writing, akin to ancient peasant chants, free from the constraints of Western European classical harmony. It is in “Kitezh” that the results of these explorations reached their fullest embodiment both in large choral scenes and in the monologues of soloists.
The opera premiered on 7 February 1907 at the Mariinsky Theatre to exceptional success, preceded by a year and a half of intense rehearsals. Many ideas of the sixty-three-year-old composer seemed overly radical even to the younger generation of artists, and once, departing from a rehearsal, Rimsky-Korsakov exclaimed, “My feet shall never step into this theatre again”. Nevertheless, a common language was eventually found, and the composer highly appreciated the fruits of this arduous collaborative effort.
The theatre has revisited “Kitezh” numerous times: productions followed in 1910, 1918, 1958, 1994, and 2001. Recently, Alexei Stepanyuk, the director of the 1994 staging, prepared a new version of Rimsky-Korsakov's mystical drama.

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh
on the playbill
30 June 2024, 18:00
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