Opera in 4 acts (1885–87).
Tchaikovsky's original score contains an introduction, two entr'actes and 23 individual numbers. The titles of numbers in Russian (Cyrillic) are taken from the published score, with English translations added in bold type. Vocal incipits are given in the right-hand column, with transliterations below in italics.
The action takes place in and around Nizhny-Novgorod, during the last quarter of the 15th century.
Act I. In a squalid inn on the banks of the River Oka, Foka and the vagabond monk Paisy are joined by Foka’s niece Nastasya (known familiarlly as 'Kuma') and her friend Polya. As Prince Yury and his huntsman Zhuran pass by on their way back from their bear hunt, Kuma’s reflectiveness suggests that she is in love with Yury. Lukash, one of the drinkers, reports that Yury’s father Prince Nikita Kurlyatev is on his way to investigate scandalous reports about the inn, together with the puritanical clerk Mamyrov. Only Kuma, who is the inn-keeper, keeps her head, and she succeeds in charming Prince Kurlyatev on his arrival with her beauty and simplicity of manner. She plies him with wine and even induces him to join in the dancing, to the rage of Mamyrov.
Act II. In the garden of Prince Kurlyatev’s house, his wife Princess Yevpraksiya is being consoled about her husband’s daily visits to Kuma by Mamyrov’s sister Nenila. Her son, Yury, tries to discover the cause of the trouble, and Paisy is ordered to spy on Kuma. A furious scene follows between the Prince and Princess. Yury pacifies an angry crowd who have pursued one of the Prince’s men into the garden, demanding punishment for the man’s crimes. When Paisy returns with news that the Prince has gone to Kuma, Yury realizes the reason for his mother’s grief and vows to kill the 'enchantress' who has bewitched his father.
Act III. Prince Kurlyatev is wooing Kuma in her hut, but she declares she would die rather than yield to him. When he has gone, Polya and Foka warn her of Yury’s resolve. But when Yury himself arrives with Zhuran, he is readily convinced of Kuma’s innocence, and left alone they fall into each others’ arms.
Act IV. Hunting horns sound from a dark forest on the river bank, and the wizard Kudma retreats into his cave as the hunt approaches. Zhuran meets Yury and learns of his plan to meet Kuma here and run away with her. When they have rejoined the hunt, Paisy and the Princess arrive to get poison for Kuma from Kudma. Kuma is now set ashore with her belongings, and, not knowing the Princess, is persuaded by her to accept a drink which contains the poison. Yury returns in time for Kuma to die in his arms. Yury rounds on his mother with curses as she departs, rejoicing. The Prince now appears in pursuit of Kuma and Yury, and, refusing to believe that she is not being hidden, kills his son in a jealous rage. Yury’s body is borne away. Left alone in the dark forest, with thunder and lightning and peals of the wizard’s laughter all about him, the Prince goes mad.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 73
Tchaikovsky began composing the opera at Maydanovo in September 1885 and finished it there in August 1886. The instrumentation of the opera was completed on 6/18 May 1887, also at Maydanovo (see the date on the autograph score).The earliest document testifying to Tchaikovsky's interest in Ippolit Shpazhinsky’s tragedy The Enchantress (or A Nizhny-Novgorodian Legend) is his letter of 18/30 December 1884 to Pavel Pchelnikov. In this letter Tchaikovsky, who had missed a recent performance, expressed his "ardent wish to obtain a seat at the theatre for the next performance of The Enchantress". However, due to urgent proofreading work and then a trip to Saint Petersburg to attend the premiere of his Suite No. 3, Tchaikovsky was unable to make it to the next performance of Shpazhinsky's play.
Modest Tchaikovsky thus describes how the idea of writing an opera based on The Enchantress came about: "At that time [January 1885] Pyotr Ilyich was looking for a subject for an opera. I was in Moscow to attend Max Erdmannsdörfer's concert [on 19/31 January 1885] and once happened to mention The Enchantress and how effective the scene of Kuma's meeting with the prince's son would be for an opera, though I did not by any means recommend using the play itself as a libretto. That very same day, Pyotr Ilyich bought a lithographed copy of I. V. Shpazhinsky's play and went into raptures over this scene. Indeed, it was this scene which settled the matter. The following day, he wrote a letter to the author of The Enchantress proposing that the play be re-fashioned into a libretto…"In his reply on 21 January/2 February 1885, Shpazhinsky wrote: "I have been wanting to make your acquaintance for a long time, and with no one else would I collaborate with such particular pleasure as with you". In a letter of 26 January/7 February 1885 Tchaikovsky informed Emiliya Pavlovskaya that he had just commenced negotiations with Shpazhinsky regarding a libretto on the subject of The Enchantress: "…I'm going off to see him now for a detailed discussion about a future opera. What would you say about The Enchantress? I haven't seen it, but I have read it and I think there is a splendid role for you in it".
Pavlovskaya tried to dissuade Tchaikovsky from writing an opera on that subject: "A loose woman who enchants by what means? By means of fine speeches, of custom? What does this signify?! She talks sweetly, seeking to please everyone. She's brave, and yet she's afraid of the old prince. Only the scene with the prince's son is any good… besides, the Enchantress's type cannot possibly appeal to you. You are far too idealistic, too much of a poet; your notions of women, especially of the heroines of your works, are far too pure. You cannot possibly like The Enchantress. Then there's that princess, a grey-haired matron (with a grown-up son) who is so in love that she acknowledges nothing apart from her jealousy. And that old prince who is his own son's rival…"
In his reply, Tchaikovsky gave a very compelling defence of his choice of subject:
Pavlovskaya was convinced by Tchaikovsky's arguments, and her subsequent letters testify to her growing interest in the figure of Nastasya. Writing to the composer on 25 April/7 May 1885, she expressed a number of thoughts on how in her view Nastasya was to develop as a character. Tchaikovsky replied: "…Everything that you say is extremely pertinent and true, and it will of course be taken into account".
From Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Shpazhinsky it transpires that the original plan of the scenario envisaged five acts in the opera to match the play's five acts. The libretto of Act I was completed in May 1885 (the date on the manuscript reads: "Finished on May 25th, 85").
While waiting for the libretto Tchaikovsky began to make sketches for the Manfred symphony. He became so engrossed in the symphony that he felt unable to interrupt his work on it, and so it was only after completing Manfred on 22 September/4 October 1885 that, "without tarrying a single hour", he set about composing his opera. Tchaikovsky thought very highly of the libretto for Act I of The Enchantress: "Oh, what a fine fellow this Shpazhinsky is, and what a splendid colleague Fate has accorded to me in his person! The first act, which is the only one I have so far, is written magnificently: it is teeming with life and action".
Shortly after commencing work on The Enchantress, Tchaikovsky observed: "I have decided to write this opera little by little, spending just two hours on it each morning. I want to stop exhausting myself and indeed to avoid going too far in my compositional zeal".
By 9/21 October half of the first act had been composed. In the draft sketches for the opera the following date appears at the top of Scene 5 in Act I: "10[/22] October 1885". On 17/29 October Tchaikovsky wrote: "I am making uncommonly swift progress in my work, and if it weren't for this visit to Kamenka the entire first act, huge as it is, would have been ready by 1[/13] November".
In early December, Tchaikovsky received the libretto for Act II from Shpazhinsky.  In Tchaikovsky's sketches the following date appears at the start of Act II: "Began on 9[/21] Dec[ember] 1885 in the village of Maydanovo".
On 19/31 January 1886, Tchaikovsky informed Shpazhinsky: "I have set about this work so briskly and successfully that by the end of next week, God permitting, I shall have finished the second act", and in the same letter he noted that he was upset by Shpazhinsky's intention of going away for a while: "I really don't want my ardour to be damped by a long interruption […] Are you sure you don't have some fragments from the third or fourth act to hand? If, for example, I had the scene between Kuma[Nastasya] and the prince's son, that would be so marvellous!!!"
By the time he completed Act II Tchaikovsky had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to make some alterations to the plan of the libretto. In his letter of 30 January/11 February 1886 to Shpazhinsky, the composer wrote: "I have become convinced that The Enchantress must be in four acts rather than five. […] Now that I have written the first two acts I have identified fully with my subject, and I feel most keenly that it is absolutely impossible to divide the opera into the same five acts as in the play. […] The third act is the culmination of the drama. There the composer will perforce be very high-strung—the tension in this act is extreme. […] one can feel the inevitability of a complicated and awful catastrophe. The fourth act then must be dedicated to this very catastrophe, after which the listener/spectator will leave the theatre staggered, yet reconciled and satisfied. After the magnificent, terrifying and passionate two scenes of Act III I feel that I can successfully write only one more act. […] In opera […] it is essential to have compressed and swift action—otherwise, the composer wouldn't have the energy to write his work, nor would the listener to take it all in attentively. […] it will inevitably be necessary to come up with something utterly new and different to the play here. The princess must, of course, kill Kuma [Nastasya]. There must, of course, be hostility between the prince and his son, there must be a struggle and death—but where is all this to take place? How, under what circumstances? […] It's just essential that all this should happen not in the prince's palace or at Kuma's inn, but rather in some neutral place. Wouldn't it be possible to have all the principal characters come together in the hut of the old wizard whom the princess visits in order to obtain poison? Would it not be possible for Kuma to be tricked by the princess (with Mamyrov as her instrument)? Is it not possible to arrange it so that the tragedy ends in public? How might one ensure that the people are present during all this?" He made similar points in a letter of 6/18 February 1886 to his brother Modest.
Judging from the entries in his diary, Tchaikovsky completed Act II on 1/13 February, and the following day he was at work on the Introduction to the opera.
In that letter of 6/18 February to Modest, he spoke of his being "infatuated" with the two first acts that were already complete. On 7/19 February, he continued his work on the Introduction and noted in his diary that evening: "All day long I have plugged away, with incredible effort, at a few bars". Lengthy interruptions delayed the completion of Act III of the opera. In March 1886 Tchaikovsky left for the Caucasus and then went abroad. Shpazhinsky was sending him the libretto in instalments. In a letter of 6/18 April from Tiflis the composer informed Shpazhinsky that he had finished those scenes in Act III for which he had the text and asked him to send the second half of the act. He added that he hoped to get back to Maydanovo in mid-June "with the third act fully completed". In this letter he also asked Shpazhinsky to send him Act IV as well, so that he could devote the whole summer to the completion of the opera.
During his stay in Tiflis Tchaikovsky had hardly any opportunity to work on The Enchantress. Some passages of the scene between Kuma (Nastasya) and the prince's son were evidently composed during the voyage to France (as implied by this note on the manuscript: "At sea. 2[/14] May 1886"). However, it seems that Tchaikovsky put off any further work on his opera until his return to Maydanovo, that is, until mid-June. In a letter of 19 June/1 July from Maydanovo Tchaikovsky informed Modest: "Today I've started to work". Various entries in Tchaikovsky's diary for June also record the progress of his work on The Enchantress. On 26 June/8 July, for instance, he noted: "Have been working (finale of Act III)". This same date is indicated in the rough draft of the opera's score.
In a letter of 25 June/7 July-26 June/8 July, Tchaikovsky told Modest that he had received Shpazhinsky's "outstanding" libretto for Act IV.  As a result work on the opera could again proceed in an intensive and systematic fashion. On 3/15 July Tchaikovsky recorded in his diary that he had started to compose Act IV. However, during the initial stage of his work on Act IV Tchaikovsky experienced great difficulties, which may have been due to a bout of ill-health at the time: "I am having a great deal of trouble writing. I haven't even managed to write a tenth of Act IV so far". On 29 July/10 August the composer noted in his diary: "All these days I've been having bleak thoughts. I think I won't ever finish The Enchantress…".  "I am constantly ailing, and my work is going so slowly as it has never done before," he lamented in a letter of 30 July/11 August 1886 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya. "I am approaching the end, but at a snails pace," he told Modest in a letter of 31 July/12 August.
However, from early August onwards Tchaikovsky was working at his usual speed again. On 3/15 August he noted in his diary: "Have begun the new half of Act IV (The princess and Kudma)".
On 6/18 August, he wrote to Modest: "I have now reached a good phase for work […] and I am getting on very well with my work…" "During the past few days I have been seized with such a relish for work that my opera is now almost fully complete. I have only one small scene left to write," he informed Yuliya Shpazhinskaya on 13/25 August 1886.
On 14/26 August, Tchaikovsky noted in his diary that he had completed Kuma's arioso, and on 18/30 August that the whole opera was complete: "today I've completely finished the draft sketches for the opera".
Tchaikovsky spent the remainder of August and early September [O.S.] composing the Twelve Romances, Op.60, but he did also go over an ensemble in Act I of his opera (see the entry in his diary for 9/21 September 1886).
Various entries in Tchaikovsky's diary around this time indicate his concern over the fact that the opera had turned out to be far too long. "Played through all of the first act, and to my horror I can see that it's terribly long. Long operas, however, are no good for anything" (entry for 11/23 September 1886). "I've played through the whole Enchantress […] It's clear that huge cuts will be necessary, and that is very unpleasant," he wrote to Modest on 18/30 September, and that same day he noted in his diary: "Reading and playing of Act I. Cuts." On 19 September/1 October Tchaikovsky commenced the instrumentation of Act I (see the diary entry for 19 September/1 October 1886). While working on the instrumentation he continued to worry about the opera being too long and about the need for making cuts, as is clear from various diary entries during the latter half of September and in October 1886.
Rehearsals for The Enchantress at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre were scheduled for the spring of 1887, and Tchaikovsky was urged to complete the piano-vocal score as quickly as possible. At the same time, therefore, as he worked on the instrumentation of Act I Tchaikovsky also set about transcribing it for piano and proceeded afterwards to transcribe the other acts. In his letter to Pyotr Jurgenson of 10/22 November 1886 he wrote: "I am now intensely occupied with finishing Act I of the opera both in the full score and in the [piano-vocal] arrangement. When I finish this I shall send it to you so that you can have a copy made and immediately start engraving the piano score. As for the following acts, I shall write these in the form of a piano score to start with, and I shall be asking you to make great haste with the engraving process, since I have promised to submit the complete printed piano score by Lent. And this is essential if we want the opera to be produced at the start of the next season".
The instrumentation of Act I was completed on 25 November/7 December 1886 (as indicated by the date on the autograph score).
On 4/16 December, Tchaikovsky told Yuliya Shpazhinskaya: "… I am working on The Enchantress with a frenetic haste, because I have pledged myself to submit it to the [Theatres'] Directorate by Lent. After that I shall have to orchestrate the three acts that are still not orchestrated (at the moment I am in fact working on the piano score) […] I requested [from Shpazhinsky] various alterations and cuts in The Enchantress, and he has carried out all these".
By 24 December 1886/5 January 1887 the piano score of Act II was ready (see the entry in Tchaikovsky's diary for that day). In his letter of 1/13 January 1887 to Eduard Nápravník Tchaikovsky also mentioned how he was working "with intense diligence" on the piano score.
The composer spent the greater part of January in Moscow, where he was involved in rehearsals for his opera, since he was due to conduct the first performances of The Enchantress. In early February, at the same time as he was working on the transcription of The Enchantress for piano, Tchaikovsky also made some changes to Act IV of the opera in connection with the cuts he had decided on for that act (see the diary entries for 2/14 and 3/15 February 1887). On 11/23 February the piano score of The Enchantress was complete. On 12/24 February Tchaikovsky recorded in his diary that he had started work on the full score of Act II. At the same time as the instrumentation he also looked through the proofs of the piano score.
In April, the first edition of the piano-vocal score was published by Jurgenson (passed by the censor on 21 February/5 March 1887).
Tchaikovsky's work on the instrumentation cost him great effort at this stage. "During all these days I have been plugging away, without a break, at the instrumentation of my opera, which, most likely as a result of my having become old and tired, is proceeding at a snails pace…" he told Anton Arensky in a letter of 2/14 April 1887.
Despite the cuts he had made to Act IV, Tchaikovsky was still not satisfied with the opera's finale. From 25 March/6 April 1887 onwards there again began appearing entries in his diary in which he commented on the longueurs of this act: "Played Act IV of The Enchantress. A whole hour!! That's terrible". It was, however, no longer possible to make further cuts, since the piano score was already at the printers'. After completing the instrumentation of Act II on 8/20 April (as indicated in his diary) Tchaikovsky set about scoring Act IV, "the very hardest" of all the acts. Shortly after embarking on this task he wrote: "… I don't like this act, or, rather, I have ceased to like it. I made a hash of it, gluing it together artificially, and it is too long, complicated, and awfully bleak!"
In subsequent diary entries Tchaikovsky recorded his daily progress on Act IV, which he finished scoring on 26 April/8 May 1887 (see the date on the autograph score).
Thereafter we find the following entries in the composer's diary:
At the end of Act III in the full score Tchaikovsky wrote: "Finished orchestrating the whole opera on 6[/18] May 1887. At Maydanovo".
On 7/19 and 8/20 May, Tchaikovsky added metronomic markings to the score, and on 9/21 May he departed for Saint Petersburg. That same day, he informed Jurgenson that he had "completed everything" and asked him to send the proofs for Act III to Aleksandra Hubert and the Introduction to Eduard Langer. 
On 9/21 May, he also wrote to Aleksandra Hubert (who often assisted Tchaikovsky with his proof-reading work): "I have finished everything. Tomorrow Aleksey [Sofronov] will dispatch Act III by post to Jurgenson, and the latter will have it brought to you. […] I entrust my Enchantress to your care".
The first general rehearsal of the opera with the singers was held at the Mariinsky Theatre on 7/19 September 1887, after which it became clear that even more cuts were required, especially in the third and fourth acts.
Tchaikovsky wrote about these cuts to his librettist Shpazhinsky: "I had to produce the piano score quickly during the rehearsals for Cherevichki last year, amidst the bustle of Moscow life. It was impossible to do this job calmly and with due reflection. In some places I did vaguely sense a certain long-windedness and an excess of music, which might tire out listeners and quench their interest. However, I had no choice but to refrain from giving thought to this, and I just carried on transcribing my rough sketches into a fair copy. When I subsequently set about the instrumentation I couldn't change anything because the piano score had already been sent to press. All this summer I was constantly tormented by the thought that the last scene of Act III and the whole of Act IV are marred by unbearable longueurs. On 8 September [actually 7/19 September], during the first general rehearsal with the singers, I noticed very clearly at what point the sympathetic attitude of everyone present towards my opera ceased and there set in a dreary silence and a kind of melancholy bemusement. It began during the love scene between the prince's son and Kuma. When Yury, for the third time in effect, makes as if to leave and yet still doesn't leave, while the music keeps going on and on, I felt rather ashamed. I had exactly the same sensation that the listeners would subsequently experience, that is, ennui, a loss of interest, and the desire to make it through to the end as quickly as possible. […] As far as Act IV is concerned, all its dramatic effectiveness notwithstanding, I have long since got used to the thought that it is far too long (a good whole hour!!!) and that cuts would be essential. Of course, it was very difficult and sad to make this decision about alterations, but for the sake of the opera's success, which I passionately yearn for, I made my mind up, retired to the seclusion of Maydanovo, and have come up with some excellent cuts, as a result of which that scene in Act III will be much improved, the listener's interest will keep rising in crescendo, and everything that is substantial and good will be retained. Likewise, the cuts in Act IV did not at all prove as difficult as I had expected. In short, I am quite satisfied with the opera in its present form and I know that at no point will the spectator feel exhausted."
From 10/22 to 19 September/1 October Tchaikovsky worked on these cuts and the related modifications to the opera's score. These changes resulted in the second version of the opera, which was published (piano-vocal arrangement and full score) by P. Jurgenson in 1901 (passed by the censor on 2/14 February 1901).
The first version has come down to us only in the aforementioned piano score, which was published in full in April 1887 and as separate numbers in May that year (passed by the censor on 21 February/5 March 1887). In August 1887 the 2-handed piano arrangement made by Aleksandra Hubert was published. Consequently, the first version of the opera was never performed, and indeed Tchaikovsky insisted that it was precisely the second version which should be used for performance.
On 1/13 October 1887, the composer wrote to Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov: "… I must tell you that for Petersburg I have made some significant alterations and lots of cuts (especially in Acts III and IV), and since all these changes were undertaken for very serious reasons, and since, moreover, the opera's success will depend on them, it is essential that in Tiflis the opera should be performed in accordance with its present version. I have already given instructions for a piano score with paste-in slips to be prepared for Tiflis. As for the orchestral score, we have one copy here with all the modifications (it is now being used to copy the voice parts), and next week it will become available again. I shall send it to you at once. You must have all the alterations added to your score and then dispatch immediately to Jurgenson in Moscow the copy which you will receive from me. The opera turned out to be very impractical in many respects (except for Acts I and II). You will have to re-rehearse one or two things".
In the course of the rehearsals in Saint Petersburg the singers asked Tchaikovsky to add or modify various passages. The mezzo-soprano Mariya Slavina requested an aria for herself at the start of Act II. The composer, however, did not fulfil her request because he considered the text in the libretto at this point to be unsuitable. Shpazhinsky evidently did not write any new text.
Although it went against his feelings as the author, Tchaikovsky showed himself to be quite willing to satisfy requests for modifications to the tessitura of the voice-parts. Thus, for Emiliya Pavlovskaya he made a significant number of modifications to the part of Nastasya in Act III. Still, Tchaikovsky felt that the modified melodies were not quite in keeping with the nature of that character and the situations in the opera. He wrote: "I am burning with impatience to discuss with you, even if only in writing, the low tessitura of the duet with the prince's son. After reading your letter I started to study this scene in detail and, just imagine, I still do not understand why you feel that it lies too low. That is, if it is indeed so, the fault is not mine (so it seems to me) but rather the scene's. It is only at the end that her passion manifests itself fully. To begin with, all of Nastasya's words are calm and slightly mocking; then her love expresses itself timidly, gently—in short, all her words here are such that high notes are not called for. But as soon as her feelings gain the upper hand over the timidity restraining her, the tessitura at once becomes higher".
In some cases, however, the composer remained adamantly opposed to changes. Responding to Pavlovskaya's request for a free recitative in Scene 6 of Act I, he wrote: "I really do not know what could be done here. I mean, it would be necessary to compose everything entirely afresh in order to turn it into a free recitative!!!" At Mariya Slavina's request Tchaikovsky made many modifications in the part of the Princess.
The Enchantress was premiered at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre on 20 October/1 November 1887, with Tchaikovsky himself conducting. The opera was not successful, and the press reviews were on the whole negative.
"The production of The Enchantress," Tchaikovsky wrote to Ippolitov-Ivanov on 19 November/1 December 1887, "has not only exhausted me very much, but has also failed to give me any joy, because it really has not gone down well with the public (the ovations at the first performance don't mean anything at all).
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky considered that the failure of The Enchantress would be but temporary. "By no means does it cause me to despair, and I think that this is an opera which one has to get used to. It will eventually gain a footing in the repertoire, that is, once audiences have accustomed their ears to it".
In anticipation of the opera's staging in Moscow, which was scheduled for the 1888/89 season (although the premiere there would not in fact take place until 2/14 February 1890), Shpazhinsky informed Tchaikovsky that the Imperial Theatres' Directorate was of the view that "some further corrections, mainly in the second half of Act III" were desirable. Tchaikovsky refused categorically to consider any such suggestion: "I tormented myself enough with those revisions last autumn and I am fully convinced that no matter how much one alters, it will just make things worse. […] I consider The Enchantress to be my best opera and I do not intend to retract a single note. […] At present I am quite incapable of addressing its failure without feeling anger and pain in my heart. I cannot warm to the subject again, and even if alterations were indeed necessary, I should only be able to undertake them after a few years have passed".
Before the opera was shown on the stage for the first time, some excerpts from The Enchantress were performed at an extraordinary concert of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society on 22 September/4 October 1887.
For Kuma's arioso in Act I, Tchaikovsky used the theme of the folk-song "Blue-grey dove" (Сизый голубь). The entr'acte to Act IV draws on the folk-song "Young shepherd Serezha" ("The final hour of parting") (Серёжа пастушок [Последний час разлуки]).
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 74-87
This page was last updated on 02 April 2013