Rimsky-Korsakov Brings 'Christmas Eve' to the Opera

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Both Rimsky's opera and Gogol's original story are set in a small Ukrainian village, sometime in the 1700s. As ACT ONE opens, on the night before Christmas, a witch called Solokha is preparing an age-old ceremony when the Devil suddenly appears. He's unhappy with Solokha's handsome young son, the blacksmith Vakula. It seems Vakula has been painting rude pictures of the Devil at a local church.

Now, the Devil wants to play a trick, to get even. Vakula is in love with the beautiful Oksana, the most popular young woman in town. But her father, Chub, doesn't approve the match. The Devil wants Solokha's help to steal the moon, and summon up a blizzard. That way, stranded by the cold and dark, Chub will have to spend Christmas Eve at home, preventing Vakula from declaring his love to Oksana. As it happens, Solokha herself has a number of suitors, including Chub. As she finds him the most attractive, she agrees.

The Devil's plan goes into action. Chub and his buddy Panas are hoping to spend Chrismas Eve drinking together. But they get separated in the darkness and snow, and Chub heads for home. Still, things don't work out the way the Devil expected. As Chub is approaching his house, he runs into Vakula. Assuming the blacksmith wouldn't dare come anywhere near the place, Chub thinks he's still lost. So he decides to visit Solokha instead. With Chub heading in another direction, and the blizzard subsiding, Vakula decides to take his chances and propose to Oksana.

He finds her at home, in front of a mirror, obviously pleased with what she sees. When Vakula quietly enters, he's even more impressed with her beauty. But she puts him off. They've had a good time, she says, but now she's getting bored with him. She's waiting for some friends to drop by, to go wassailing, and she's looking forward to all the compliments she'll get from the other young men in the village.

When the others arrive, one of Oksana's girlfriends is showing off a gift -- a fine new pair of slippers. Oksana complains that nobody ever gives her presents as nice as that. Vakula takes the bait, and promises to get her any pair of slippers she wants. In front of everyone, she takes him up on the offer. She'll marry him, she says -- but only if he brings her the elegant slippers worn by the Tsar's wife -- the Tsarina.

Vakula figures he's been dumped, and turns away. The other young people begin celebrating with Christmas Carols. As Vakula wanders off, obviously disconsolate, Oksana wonders if she's made a mistake.

As ACT TWO begins, Solokha is busy celebrating Christmas Eve with the Devil himself, in her small home. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door. It's the village mayor, one of Solokha's many suitors. She can't let him see her with the Devil, so the Devil quickly hides in a sack as the mayor enters.

Soon, there's another knock at the door. This time it's the local Sexton, another of Solokha's admirers. Now it's the mayor's turn to dive into a sack -- and the procession isn't over yet. Oxana's father Chub then arrives, with his own eye for Solokha. So she finds yet another sack for the Sexton. And when Vakula comes to visit his mother, she has to find a fourth sack to conceal Chub.

Vakula takes a quick look around. The Christmas celebration is in full swing, and he thinks they need more room in the place. So he hauls the sacks away -- complaining about how heavy they are.

Outside, villagers have gathered to dance and sing carols. When Oxana arrives, all the men are quickly drawn to her. But she has her eyes on Vakula, who shows up carrying the sacks. He sees her watching him, but when he approaches, she's still playing hard to get. "I'll marry you," she says, "but first, you have to get me those slippers."

Vakula decides this demand is impossible to meet, and says he might as well just kill himself. He trudges off, leaving all but one of the four sacks behind. The villagers worry about him, and Oksana is concerned that she might have driven him into the arms of someone else.

But there's still the Christmas celebration to think about. Eyeing the three sacks Vakula left on the ground, someone thinks he might have brought food, for the party. So as the act ends, they rip the sacks open, only to find three, very embarrassed men -- Chub, the Mayor and the Sexton, who all complain that Solokha has bewitched them.

In ACT THREE, Vakula decides to see what he can do about getting the Tsarina's slippers for Oksana.  He visits Patsyuk, a local sorcerer, while still carrying one small sack.  Vakula asks Patsyuk to help him find the Devil, hoping for assistance from the dark side. Patsyuk calmly tells him that locating the Devil should be easy -- Vakula is carrying him on his shoulder! 

At that, the Devil pops out of the bag. He’s willing to help Vakula, he says -- but only in exchange for his soul. At first, Vakula pretends to accept the deal. But instead, when the Devil looks away, Vakula grabs him by the tail and produces a small cross. It seems the cross, together with the spirit of Christmas Eve, is too much for even the devil to resist -- and he agrees to do whatever Vakula wishes.

Vakula demands that the Devil take him to see the Tsarina, and the two fly off into the sky. Sorcerers and witches are gathering to celebrate their Sabbath -- including one particular witch, Vakula's mother Solokha. They all rise, trying to stop the Devil and Vakula from reaching the Tsarina. But Vakula still has his cross, and the two go on their way.

In the Tsarina's court, everyone is preparing for a holiday celebration. The ladies of the court dance a Polonaise with a group of Cossacks. When the Tsarina appears, Vakula kneels at her feet. He tells her his fondest wish is for his beloved Oksana to have a pair of slippers as fine as the ones the Tsarina is wearing. Moved by his sincerity, the Tsarina removes the slippers, and presents them as a gift, on Christmas Eve. Carrying the precious slippers, Vakula hops on the Devil's back and they head for the village -- as the sun rises, and Christmas bells ring out.

ACT FOUR takes place back home, where it's Oksana's turn to be unhappy. There's been no sign of Vakula. The villagers all think he must have killed himself, and they argue over how he did it. Was it by hanging, or drowning? Off by herself, Oksana sings a melancholy aria, regretting the way she treated Vakula -- and realizing that she has loved him all along.

While she sings, Vakula returns, and listens in secret. At first, Oksana doesn't notice him, and he's overjoyed at what he's heard. He presents her with the slippers. She's grateful, but says would have married him even without them. Her father, Chub, might be expected to object. But Vakula has gifts for him, too -- a colorful belt and sheepskin hat -- and that wins him over.

Chub calls everyone together, and announces that along with Christmas, there will also be a wedding celebration. The joyful villagers crowd around Vakula, wanting to know all about his magical Christmas Eve journey, and the opera ends.