Literary breaks

Fleeing from Impossible Passions

Conversations with a pantheist

By Dominique Fernandez 26 April 2017


© Elisa Haberer / OnP

Fleeing from Impossible Passions

Born of the union between Fairy Spring and King Winter, Snegurochka is the heroine of an opera full of love and fire. The writer Dominique Fernandez converses with the young shepherd boy Lel and reveals the secret of a world in which nature, birds and animals replace men and women to avoid the conflicts of mortals.

Even though, in appearance at least, I’m only a secondary character in the opera by my friend Nikolaï Rimsky-Korsakov, it is I, Lel, who will reveal to you the secret behind his work. What a nerve! You don’t say! Alongside Snegurochka, the eponymous heroine, not to mention the Tszar Berendey, master of the empire and the father of us all, who am I, indeed, except a poor shepherd? And yet, I’m the one that knows the secret. Little by little I shall unfold it.

To begin with, listen to the Chorus of the Blind, at the beginning of Act II:    

Our eyes are lowered to the ground,
In the endless night they are closed for ever.
But our clear-sighted spirits perceive
Around us the kingdoms of the earth.
What is this tumult that arises everywhere?    

And thus they deplore the din of trumpets and weapons, the clamour of war, the hecatombs of warriors fallen on the field of battle and the weeping of their widows. Yes, the world has been delivered up to the madness of men.
War is only the tip of the iceberg, the most spectacular expression of this madness, a folly that manifests itself in every aspect of daily life, and first and foremost in the domain most familiar to all creatures: love, the experience of which no one escapes. Well! Look at what happens. Koupava is in love with Mizguir who spurns her for Snegurochka, who prefers me, but I'm interested by her and care nothing for her feelings. A beautiful opera about love, indeed! They all run after whoever is the least attracted by their amorous designs; they all make themselves miserable by pinning their hopes wherever they have least chance of succeeding. Humanity is comprised of men and women who tear themselves and each other apart, without ever reaching an agreement. Love, which ninnies proclaim as the promise of peace and happiness, is nothing but a source of conflict; love is a calamity.
The Tsar himself is powerless to re-establish any semblance of harmony. In vain does he determine to reconcile the lovers who battle it out amid inextricable intrigues. Disillusioned, he sees that all his efforts have come to nothing. My friend Nikolaï found a marvellous way of underlining his impotence. In all Russian operas, the role of the Tsar is sung by a bass. A deep voice, that descends to the depths is, along with an abundant beard, a sign of authority and power. Could you imagine Boris Godounov without his dark, velvety basso profundo? Now, the Tsar Berendey is a tenor! Everything he sings is charming, I adore his warblings, but his high voice identifies him as a decorative character without real sovereignty.

Poor Snegurochka! Her name means “Snow Flower” or “Snow Maiden”, and she really does need help! Born of the union between Fairy Spring and King Winter, she came into the world frozen, body and soul. Incapable of feeling the slightest love, she languishes in terrible emotional solitude. Perhaps, deep down, this is just as well for, in spite of her sufferings, the Sun god, Yarilo, who leads the dance of love, would only have to cast his eyes on her and she would die from the brutal impact of the Sun god’s warmth on the cold that imprisons her. Remember this prophecy: the fire of love would be fatal for Snegurochka, she would melt in its ardent rays.
Fairy Spring, King Winter, the Snow Maiden: by his choice of characters, Nikolaï indicates that the elements play an important role in his opera and that, instead of a theatre, the real setting should be all of Nature. Listen to another chorus from the prologue at the beginning, that of the birds. What an idea to have birds sing! Its only justification, the only way in which it can be understood, is the overall philosophy of the work. Men and women are not the principle characters of the opera. “How is that possible?” you’ll ask me. Doesn’t an opera have to be sung by men and women? Tenors, baritones or basses, sopranos and mezzos, don’t we recognise beings of clearly defined gender through the timbre of their voices? Snegurochka and Kupava are sopranos, Fairy Spring a mezzo-soprano, the Tsar Berendey a tenor, Mizguir a baritone and King Winter a bass: those are the rules of the genre. What are you getting at, Lel?

What am I getting at? To myself, Lel. In principle, I am a young shepherd, so therefore a man. But, you who are listening to me, it won’t have escaped your notice that it’s a woman singing the role. A woman? What is Nicolai up to now? Certainly, it’s not the first time a composer has entrusted the role of a young man to a female voice. Mozart opened the ball, so to speak, with his immortal Cherubino. Gounod adopted the strategy with Siebel in Faust as did Verdi with the page, Oscar, in Un ballo in maschera. Apparently, Richard Strauss is planning to do likewise for the young Octavian in Rosenkavalier. However, in each case, the composer only wanted to underline the extreme youth of the character, that undecided age in which morphology hesitates between male and female. As for me, I’m very young but that’s not why Nikolaï made me a travesty role. He used the tradition of operatic travesty roles but for quite another purpose than the usual one. In my case, it signifies that I am neither man nor woman; that I do not belong to the world of humans, any more than do Fairy Spring and King Winter, or indeed the birds I was talking about, or the animals that we see wandering through the forest. I am exceptional, of neither sex; I am a pure emanation of nature, a being without being, or rather an androgynous creature that contains all creatures at once, I transcend the difference between the sexes, escaping thus from the misery of lovers’ quarrels. Light-hearted and indifferent, pursued in vain by Snegurochka who has not grasped that my essence is in flight, I bound through forests, free to run in the woods, without the fetters that bind human beings in impossible passions…
Have you taken note of my name? Lel, what an odd name, isn’t it? It has the unique particularity of being reversible. You can write it forwards and backwards, starting at the beginning or at the end. “Lel” or “Lel”. Completely the same! What does that mean? Usually, a name indicates and underlines a precise identity. Given that I am neither man nor woman, I am not any one, I am no one, my name has no more substance than a bit of rubber that one can stretch in any direction and mould to any shape. The truth is that I belong to the kingdom of nature, being one of the elements of the universe.
And my voice? I am neither soprano nor mezzo-soprano like Cherubino, Siebel and Oscar, and as they say Octavian will be: I am an alto, that is to say, I have the least feminine of the female voices, a very low voice for a woman, a voice that shows that I’m not really a woman, but a creature whose voice is barely distinguishable from the lowing of beasts in the forest, the rustle of leaves in the trees or the far off rumbling of thunder in the sky.

And I have three arias to sing, “Lel’s three songs” as they are commonly called, to show that they form the musical climax of the opera. Why three, by the way? Why not two or four? The number three was not chosen by chance. Three is a sacred number. There are three Graces, three Fates, three orders of architecture; the French writer, Alexandre Dumas entitled one of his novels The Three Musketeers even though there are four of them because four is a neutral, inexpressive number. “Three” has overtones of the Holy Trinity. This detail shows once again that I am above and beyond human dimensions. The numbers two and four, even numbers, suggest something closed, the narrow limitations of a couple, the indigent psychology of the four humours, the arbitrary divisions of the seasons.
I, however, embody nature in her unceasing movement, circular and undifferentiated. My first song is sad, it evokes the “poor orphan” growing up in shadow and grief, and the “little strawberry” that perishes “beneath the big black bush”. In the second song, the joy of living erupts.   

The forest gaily awakens
And yonder the herdsman sings;
Ah, how sweet it is to live!
The sun shines radiantly
Amid the branches;
The silver birches
Tremble in the breeze,
Ah, how sweet it is to live!    

The message is clear: the only love that does not disappoint is that which awakens nature in the spring, that draws the sap into the buds, that thaws the ice to free the running brook, that ruffles the trees with an enchanting murmur. “Ah! How sweet it is to live!
Providing one abandons human love to melt into the elements. Poor Snegurochka pays a high price for wanting to love a man. At the beginning one thinks she has more sense: she rejects the man who courts her.

Go away and leave me alone! For pity’s sake, you appal me!

Mizguir may well have offered her a “ pearl of changing reflections” found at the bottom of the sea in the waters of an enchanted island, she rejects his advances. Why didn’t he listen to my third song?

A cloud, one day, said to the thunder:
Rumble! Rumble! I sprinkle the rain
And the earth shall be refreshed;
And I shall make the flowers happy.
Little girls will gather raspberries,
And young lads will follow them.

Because of the feast days, the dances and rounds, the songs taken up by the chorus, like the beautiful scene in the last act, in which the young lads and lasses come down from the mountain through the forest, in the company of gusli players plucking the strings of their instruments and shepherds blowing their horns. But beware! It is not a matter of forming couples or of disturbing universal harmony with personal affairs that would only be ruptures in Oneness. It is a matter of celebrating Oneness in a unanimous surging of wills in the determination to be rid of their petty identity.
But Snegurochka still doesn’t understand. Finally, she lets herself be persuaded by Mizguir and asks him to take her in his arms and carry her off. ‘Well then”, you’ll say, “there’s a couple who have chosen the path to happiness.” Do you really think that Nikolai would have betrayed himself by concocting a happy few with thatched cottages? If so, you don’t know much about my friend. The moment she abandons herself to banal sentimentality, the initial prophecy, which I asked you to remember, is fulfilled. Warmed by the sun of love, Snegurochka’s body of ice begins to melt.   

I die and melt for love
And happiness. Farewell all of you,
My companions, farewell, farewell my beloved.
Oh, my friend I am yours,
In this glance receive my soul.

What does Mizguir receive?

Ah! What a strange prodigy, what a mystery!
Thus melts the snow in the fire of the bright sun,
She has perished – Snegurochka is no more.
Like a snowflake she has melted.

And now it's Mizguir's turn: out of desperation, he throws himself in the lake. And who prayed for the sun to appear and shine? Who took the initiative that was to prove fatal to the young girl and her lover? It was I, Lel, and I congratulated the sun for showing so much ardour.

Oh sun, light and strength,
Sun, splendour of the earth,
Glory be to you, god Yarilo!

Don’t accuse me of treachery; I did kill the Snow Maiden, but only to spare her the misery of human love, the withering that is the lot of all couples. She is not dead, she has dissolved, she is liquefied; in melting, she has returned to nature, she has joined Oneness. I did not kill her, I saved her.
My friend Nikolaï is the only composer to have penetrated the “great secret of Nature” as Fairy Spring sings. The only one to have written operas that can be called pantheistic. He has even admitted that, in defiance of academic censure, he willingly drew on pagan themes from Russian folklore. From composition to composition, he deepened his notion of an holistic universe, both sensual and metaphysical. After Snegurochka, there will be Sadko, the fisherman who caught three golden fish in his net and went to the bottom of the ocean to give them to the daughter of the Sea King. After Sadko there will be Kitega, the name of the town which disappeared in a golden mist and became invisible in order to escape from the invading Tartars. But Snegurochka remains without doubt the most beautiful of his operas because it recounts that fragile moment in which the temptation of individual love gives way before the vertiginous gulf of pantheism.

Dominique Fernandez

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