Vanishing City, Ravishing Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Invisible City Of Kitezh'

Kitezh Disappears

As Act Three ends, Grishka (Mikhail Gubsky) hears the bells of Kitezh in his ears and sees the city's reflection in the water — but Kitezh itself has vanished completely. Terrified, he and the Tartar army flee into the night.

Act Three Finale

2 min 34 sec
 
'The Invisible City' in Cagliari

The Teatro Lirico's colorful presentation of "The Legend of the Invisible City" was a co-production with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Teatro Lirico di Cagliari hide caption

itoggle caption Teatro Lirico di Cagliari

Do you know the term "syncretism"? It means "the tendency to combine or reconcile differing beliefs, as in philosophy or religion." And that aptly sums up Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's complex and kaleidoscopic opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya.

The opera's title characters — a city and a maiden — come from two contrasting legends, both based on ancient, Russian folklore. Fevroniya is a young peasant woman who worships nature, heals a dying prince and saves the wicked city of Murom from chaos. Kitezh is a city so devoutly Christian that when it comes under siege, its citizens defend themselves only by praying, and the city disappears in the face of its attackers.

In the wrong hands, blending the two stories could have made for a murky opera. But Rimsky-Korsakov seemed less concerned with his drama's complex mix of beliefs than with its potential for powerful imagery — and he was one of the greatest musical colorists who ever lived. In his hands, a young woman transformed by the beauty and purity of nature becomes a swirl of gentle melody and shifting orchestral textures. And a city that disappears into a golden mist survives in the fervent voices of its people and the shimmering sound of its bells.

The Legend of the Invisible City premiered in St. Petersburg in 1907, and quickly became the most popular opera in Russia. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a performance from the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari. It's a co-production with Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, where the opera is scheduled to make its debut later this year.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'The Legend Of The Invisible City'

Rimsky-Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov completed The Legend of the Invisible City in 1904. Its first performance took place in 1907 at the historic Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images

WHO'S WHO?

  • Tatiana Monogorova ..... Fevroniya
  • Vitaly Panfilov ............... Vsevolod
  • Mikhail Gubsky ............... Grishka
  • Vsevolodovic Kazakov ....... Yuri
  • Gevorg Hakobyan ...... Poyarok
  • Rosanna Savoia .......... Sirin
  • Elena Manistina ........... Alkonost
  • Teatro Lirico Chorus and Orchestra
  • Alexander Vedernikov, conductor

After a Prelude, called "In Praise of the Wilderness," Act One opens deep in the forest, at the home of the young woman Fevroniya. In a jubilant song, she describes the mysteries of the forest and its creatures, praising the forest as "a great church." When she meets a hunter, lost in the woods, the two immediately fall in love.

The hunter promises to marry Fevroniya, but leaves her alone when he hears the horns of his party in the woods and goes off to find them. After he's gone, his friends arrive, looking for him. They tell Fevroniya that the man she has just fallen in love with is actually Prince Vsevolod, son of Prince Yury, ruler of the great city of Kitezh.

Act Two begins in a small village called Little Kitezh, not far from the great city itself. Fevroniya's wedding procession is approaching, and there is entertainment — a dancing bear, and then an old bard whose song warns of tragedy in the future.

Some wealthy citizens disapprove of the common forest woman their prince has chosen to marry. They hire a drunken singer named Grishka Kuterma to ridicule Fevroniya as she arrives, and a couple of beggars chime in, mocking Grishka in the process. A man named Poyarok then announces the arrival of the bridal party, and the people sing in praise of Fevroniya.

The festivities are quickly halted when an army of Tartars attacks. Grishka and Fevroniya are both taken prisoner. Fevroniya stays calm, but Grishka is terrified and agrees to guide the Tartar army to Kitezh. The citizens flee in terror, and Fevroniya prays for a miracle. She asks that the city of Kitezh be made invisible, to thwart the Tartar attack.

The first scene of Act Three takes place in Kitezh itself, outside the city's Great Cathedral, where the people have gathered at night. Poyarok, who was blinded when Fevroniya was captured, tells everyone that the Tartar army is approaching, with Fevroniya as a hostage. Prince Yury, the ruler of Kitezh, sends an army led by Vsevolod to defend the city. As the soldiers march off, a mysterious golden mist envelops Kitezh. As the scene ends, the battle with the Tartars is depicted in the orchestra, complete with wild music evoking the hoofbeats of the armies' horses.

In the next scene, the Tartar army has won the battle. Grishka leads them to the banks of a lake, where he says they'll see Kitezh on the far shore. But there's nothing there, and the Tartars threaten Grishka with torture and death. They also discuss the fate of Prince Vsevolod, who fought bravely and chose to die rather than surrender. But when they go to divide their booty, there's trouble. Two warriors named Burunday and Bedyay fight over Fevroniya, and Bedyay is killed.

As night comes, the Tartars fall asleep, and Grishka begins raving with guilt over his betrayal of Kitezh. He begs Fevroniya to untie him. When she does, he runs to the edge of the lake to drown himself. As he approaches the shore, he sees Kitezh reflected in the water and hears its bells ringing in his ears, even though the city itself seems to have disappeared completely. Terrified, he runs off. When the Tartars wake up, they also retreat from the water, frightened by the ghostly reflection on the lake.

As Act Four begins, Grishka and Fevroniya have escaped from the fleeing Tartars, and are together in a dark forest. Grishka is raving with guilt, and Fevroniya tries to calm him. But Grishka loses his senses and takes off into the woods, screaming as he goes.

Alone, Fevroniya falls asleep, and the forest is magically transformed. Candles appear in the trees, lighting up the night, and fabulous flowering plants spring up all around her. An ethereal bird named Alkonost appears to Fevroniya and tells her that she will soon die. The ghost of Vsevolod then appears, saying that he can now lead her to Kitezh. Finally, Sirin, another prophetic bird, tells Fevroniya that she has been granted eternal life. As the scene changes, the transfiguration of Fevroniya's spirit is heard in a brilliant, bell-like orchestral interlude.

The final scene takes place in Kitezh, which now exists in a sort of heavenly afterworld. Fevroniya and her wedding party are met by the city's leader, Prince Yuri. The spirit of Vsevolod joins Fevroniya at the altar. The two will live together forever, in the Invisible City.

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