Opera in 4 acts by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908)
Libretto by the composer based on a short story from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka by Nikolay Gogol.
First performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 10th December 1895.
With a plot involving a warm-hearted witch, an altruistic Devil and a reckless quest for the slippers worn by the Russian tsarina, this is no ordinary Christmas Eve. Rimsky-Korsakov’s captivating opera, premiered in 1895, closely follows one of Nikolay Gogol’s vibrant tales of Ukrainian village life, overlaid with allusions to ancient Russian myths associated with Winter and the birth of Spring. At the opera’s heart is a love story. Oxana, who is regarded (not least by herself) as the most beautiful maiden in the neighbourhood, is adored by Vakula the blacksmith, but she puts a heavy price on her hand in marriage: she wants the slippers worn by Catherine the Great in St Petersburg. This being fanciful theatre where anything is possible, Vakula hitches a ride on the Devil’s back, secures the slippers and gives them to Oxana – who then maddeningly claims she would have married him anyway. It is the sort of tale to which Rimsky could apply all his gifts of local, folk-inflected colour, acuteness of character, musical invention and scintillating orchestration, bringing to life an array of village oddballs and a scenario that bristles with vitality, magic and a thoroughly Russian atmosphere of enchantment.
© Geoffrey Norris 2017