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Rimsky-Korsakov Brings 'Christmas Eve' to the Opera

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Rimsky-Korsakov Brings 'Christmas Eve' to the Opera

In Rimsky's magical opera, the spirit of Christmas overcomes all odds.

The holiday season is a time when music is heard almost everywhere -- in particular, Christmas music.  And the most popular Christmas tunes are instantly recognizable, despite being heard in countless guises.

No matter what genre of music you happen to favor, someone has undoubtedly come up with a version of "White Christmas," "Santa Clause is Coming to Town," or "Sleigh Ride," that's tailored to fit your tastes, and you'll identify it immediately.

Naturally, there's also an endless variety of classical Christmas music.  Some of it -- notably the Christmas music in Handel's Messiah -- is nearly as familiar as the most ubiquitous pop tunes. 

Yet there are numerous other Classical pieces that were written specifically for Christmas, but aren’t so obvious -- works that are less familiar, and don't betray their Christmas connections by relying on traditional holiday tunes, or carols.  One example is Arcangelo Corelli's "Christmas Concerto."  It makes frequent holiday appearances, but if you don't know the piece, you might hear it without ever guessing its Christmas origins.

Another example is the opera we're featuring this week, by Rimsky-Korsakov.  It's based on a story by the great Russian author Nicolai Gogol.  The same story also inspired an opera by Tchaikovsky, which actually became two operas -- one called Vakula the Smith, and a re-written version known as The Slippers

Yet the original story has a different title altogether -- one more fit for a magical tale that takes place on a magical day.  Both Gogol's story and Rimsky's opera are called Christmas Eve.

Officially, Rimsky-Korsakov began writing the opera in 1894, shortly after the death of Tchaikovsky.  The score was completed in time for a world premiere in St. Petersburg, in November of 1895.  Yet, according to some accounts, Rimsky had been fascinated by the story for quite some time, and actually started the opera in the spring of 1893.  But, out of respect for Tchaikovsky, he kept it a secret until after the older composer's death later that year.

Perhaps unexpectedly, at least for an opera set at Christmas time, the story includes not just a witch and a sorcerer, but even the Devil himself -- along with many allusions to ancient, pagan rituals.  But the spirit of Christmas prevails, allowing love and joy to win out in the end.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rimsky's Christmas Eve in a performance from Svetlanov Hall, at the International Center for the Arts, in Moscow.  The stars are tenor Oleg Dolgov and soprano Anna Pegova, with conductor Valery Polyansky.