“…I have never toiled so hard as on The Enchantress. I know that one day it will come into its own…”
From a letter written by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky to Pyotr Yurgenson
24 November 1887
It is difficult to think of another work, written by Tchaikovsky for theatre, which has had such a sad performance history. The Enchantress is usually considered to be one of the less known (if not to say less successful) of the great Russian composer’s operas. But whereas such a ‘status’ for the operas of the ‘pre-Onegin’ period - The Voyevoda and The Oprichnik can be explained, The Enchantress was composed much later at the same time as such undoubted masterpieces as Manfred, Symphony No. 5 and The Sleeping Beauty… Could Tchaikovsky, at the peak of his creative powers, have written an unsuccessful opera? Even The Maid of Orleans and Mazeppa which, in their time got a bad reception, today are ‘rehabilitated’ and often found in the repertoires of Russian and even foreign theatres. However, for the Enchantress its time, as it were, has still to come…
Ippolit Shpazhinsky’s tragedy The Enchantress, based on an old Nizhny Novgorod 15th century legend, got its first production in 1884, at the Maly Theatre, and soon, in terms of number of performances, it had overtaken all other plays in Moscow and Petersburg. In the main role of Nastasya, nicknamed "Kuma", the great actresses Maria Ermolova and Maria Savina gave brilliant performances. Modest Tchaikovsky, who himself was a dramatist, was very impressed by one of the scenes in the tragedy and he pointed it out to his brother: having come to Kuma, who is secretly in love with him in order, on his mother’s instructions to murder her, the Prince first likes her and then falls for her. And it was with this scene that work on the opera started: Tchaikovsky composed a splendid duet. And before long he suggested to Shpazhinsky that he write an opera libretto on the basis of the tragedy.
Via her devastating charms, the heroine is capable of conquering any man, but it is only when she really falls in love that she acquires genuine beauty and passion - this was how Tchaikovsky saw the role of Kuma. “In the depths of this loose woman’s soul is a moral power and beauty… This power is love”, the composer wrote to singer Emilia Pavlovskaya (who was to sing the part of Kuma). “Why do you love the part of La Traviata? Why do you have to love Carmen? It is because in these roles, under their coarse form, one feels beauty and power”.
By spring 1887, Tchaikovsky had completed his work on The Enchantress. The premiere took place at the Mariinsky Theatre on 20th October of the same year (Tchaikovsky conducted). The opera was not particularly successful. In part the blame lay on the interpreter of the main role who, by this time, had virtually lost her voice. In part the libretto itself was to blame which, in places was long and tedious. Tchaikovsky realized this and was subsequently to cut it. After one season, the opera was dropped from the repertoire. And the costumes and sets were dispatched to Moscow.
However, at the Bolshoi The Enchantress had just one performance (on 2nd February 1890)! Though the public were intrigued by the opera, it was not presented again.
The second production of the opera at the Bolshoi Theatre was after Tchaikovsky’s death – in 1916. On this occasion the interpretation and production came in for high praise from Moscow critics, The Enchantress though remained in the repertoire only till the end of the year.
The third and most notable production at the Bolshoi Theatre was in 1958. The production team was composed of the still very young Evgeny Svetlanov (this was the maestro’s second Bolshoi production) and the eminent producer Leonid Baratov (for the latter, on the contrary, it was his last production). The Enchantress was given 49 performances and stayed in the repertoire till 1965.
Today The Enchantress has a splendid production team: Alexander Lazarev (conductor), Alexander Titel (director) and Valery Leventhal (scenographer).
Alexander Lazarev, on whose initiative The Enchantress will again enter the Bolshoi repertoire, considers this opera, invested with Shakespearian passions, to be a blessing for the Bolshoi opera company. In the maestro’s words, there is music which is destined for success, and there is music which requires knowledge and the ability to convey it. The Enchantress has everything and, to some degree, one may regard it as a study for Tchaikovsky’s absolute masterpiece – The Queen of Spades.
Despite his international reputation, a major part of Alexander Lazarev’s professional career has been linked to the Bolshoi Theatre where he was music director from 1987-95. Last season, the maestro renewed his cooperation with the Bolshoi under the umbrella of the Theatre’s philharmonic subscription concerts at the Conservatoire. This season the cooperation will take the form of engagements at the Theatre itself. As Bolshoi conductor, Alexander Lazarev has more than once returned ‘forgotten’ titles to the repertoire – for instance, Mlada, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-ballet, and Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. These operas aroused firm interest with the public and became part of the Bolshoi Theatre’s glorious 20th century history.
Valery Leventhal worked at the Bolshoi for thirty years (for eight of which he was chief scenographer) and made a huge contribution to the creation of the Theatre’s most important achievements in both opera and ballet.
Alexander Titel who, for 20 years, led the opera company of Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich Danchenko Music Theatre, is famous for his original interpretations of the opera classics and for his successful work as director at the Bolshoi.
This production team has worked together before. In 1990 Messrs Lazarev, Titel and Leventhal presented at the Bolshoi the première of another rarely performed opera – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve. It was a great success: this striking, fairytale opera was loved by the Moscow public and approved by audiences at the Edinburgh Festival.
Sketches by Valery Leventhal