Opera in 4 acts and 8 scenes (1885).
The titles, numbering and tempo markings are taken from the first edition of the full score, published in 1885. Act 2 is divided into two scenes. 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 story is set in the Ukraine and Saint Petersburg, during the reign of Catherine the Great.
Act I. On a moonlit night in the Ukrainian village of Dikanka (Scene 1), the witch Solokha is approached by the amorous Devil. The Devil is upset with the smith Vakula (Solokha’s son) for painting an ugly picture of him in the local church. As he flies off with Solokha, the Devil raises a snowstorm and steals the moon, so as to wreck Vakula’s courtship of Oksana, daughter of the cossack Chub, who is now seen stumbling drunkenly through the darkness with his friend Panas. In Chub’s hut (Scene 2), Oksana is admiring herself in her mirror and has little time for his wooing when Vakula arrives. When Chub lurches in, covered with snow, Vakula fails to recognise him and throws him out. Oksana then furiously drives Vakula away, pretending that she loves someone else. But when she is alone, listening to the village girls sing Christmas carols, she confesses her love for him.
Act II. While Solokha is flirting with the Devil in her hut (Scene 1), they are interrupted by a knock at the door. The Devil hides in a sack while Solokha admits the mayor Pan Golova, who then also sings of his love for Solokha. After another knock at the door, the mayor hides in another sack, and the scene is repeated in turn with the schoolmaster and Chub, each hiding in a sack as the next one declares his love for Solokha. The final guest is Vakula. Unhappy love must have made him weak, he thinks, as he staggers out carrying the mysteriously heavy sacks to make space in the hut for the Christmas festivities. Outside (Scene 2), Oksana is among a crowd of carollers. She admires a pair of slippers (cherevichki) which a friend is wearing. When Vakula, arriving with the sacks, offers to find her a better pair, she mockingly promises to marry him if he will bring the Tsarina’s own slippers. Vakula leaves miserably, still carrying the sack containing the Devil, while the mayor, schoolmaster and Chub emerge from the other sacks, to the astonishment and amusement of the carollers.
Act III. On the moonlit bank of the river (Scene 1), Vakula is tempted by the water-sprites (rusalkas) to throw himself into the waters. But when the Devil creeps out of the sack and tries to bargain for his soul, Vakula seizes him by the tail. With the Devil at his mercy, Vakula leaps on his back and forces him to fly to the Tsarina’s palace in Saint Petersburg. They arrive at the palace (Scene 2) at the same time as a band of Cossacks, who have been granted an audience with the Tsaritsa. While a ball is in progress in the Great Hall of the palace (Scene 3), Vakula and the Cossacks are received in the throne room by the Prince. Vakula’s request for the slippers is met with amusement, but his wish is granted, and amid the festivities he slips away again on the Devil’s back.
Act IV. On a sunny Christmas morning in front of the church in Dikanka, all the villagers are rejoicing, except for Solokha and Oksana, who are worried about Vakula’s disappearance. Suddenly, Vakula is seen approaching. He has brought the slippers for Oksana, who admits that she has loved him all along. Chub gives the young couple his blessings, to general rejoicing.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 64–65
The composer revised the Vakula the Smith while at Maydanovo in 1885, carrying out an intention of long standing. The revision was mentioned in correspondence for the first time on 28 April/10 May 1884, when Tchaikovsky wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson: "I will certainly revise Vakula the Smith. I am thoroughly convinced that it is worth doing. I will complete the revision this coming winter, and will attempt to have it staged in the 1885/86 season" .
Tchaikovsky told Nadezhda von Meck, Pyotr Jurgenson and Modest Tchaikovsky about the intended changes to Vakula the Smith . In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck dated 24 November/6 December, Tchaikovsky wrote: "I am rather busy in the mornings, namely I am contemplating changes which I intend to introduce to my opera "Vakula the Smith. This is one of my favourite creations—but I am not blind to the fundamental shortcomings which afflict the opera and prevent it from remaining in the repertoire. I want to spend a few months removing those shortcomings, so that the opera can be staged the next season in Moscow"  .
During a sojourn in Paris in the winter of 1885, Tchaikovsky, in his words, "managed here to plan all the major changes to Vakula"  . In fact he commenced working on the revision to the opera in mid/late February, while settled at Maydanovo: "I started my work on Vakula with a fervent, fiery zeal" . On 20 February/4 March 1885 Tchaikovsky reported: "I have written completely new scenes; everything that was bad I have discarded, everything that was good I have retained, simplifying unwieldy and overbearing harmonies—in a word I have done everything required to rescue the opera from the oblivion that it certainly did not deserve" . And in the same letter he wrote that in a few days he would set to work on orchestration of all the newly-written sections.
On 4/16 March 1885 in a letter to his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky reported: "My work is not progressing speedily enough, but how happy it makes me! How pleased I am to think that my Vakula shall re-emerge from oblivion". And the composer asked Modest to devise a new name for the opera: "I do not want either Vakula the Smith, or Christmas Eve, or The Empress’s Shoes—it must be something else" . The opera was entitled Cherevichki: "I intend to change the title because there are other Vakula the Smiths..." . All the changes to the opera "Vakula the Smith were finished by 23 March/4 April .
In April the opera was accepted for staging in Moscow . On 22 April/4 May the opera was considered at a management meeting in the theatre, and on 1/13–2/15 May Tchaikovsky was tidying up the libretto, "which before it goes to press I must show it to Yakov Polonsky (author of the original libretto)" . On 2/14 Tchaikovsky wrote that he had sent the libretto with all the additions he had made to Pyotr Jurgenson for publishing .
In 1885 Pyotr Jurgenson published the piano score of the opera  and the orchestral parts; the full score of the opera was only printed in 1898 . Aleksandra Hubert assisted Tchaikovsky with proof-reading and the piano arrangement of some numbers . The third set of proofs, it seems, were checked by Tchaikovsky alone. On 8/20 July 1885 he wrote to Sergey Taneyev: "... I am overwhelmed with proofs of the opera" .
Despite the directorate's promise, the staging of Cherevichki did not take place in the 1885/86 season, owing to the prolonged illness of Ippolit Altani and Tchaikovsky’s reluctance to engage another, less experienced conductor. An offer by the author to conduct the opera by himself, received a sympathetic reaction in the theatre; nevertheless, due to apparent constraints of the repertoire, the premiere was rescheduled for the next season .
The first performance of Cherevichki took place on 19/31 January 1887 in Moscow at the Bolshoi Theatre. The composer himself conducted the first three performances. This was the start of Tchaikovsky's career as a conductor. On 4/16 December 1886 he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "Today… an event of great significance for me has occurred. I conducted at the first orchestral rehearsal, and in such a way that (if this isn't just boasting) surprised everyone, because everyone expected that I would disgrace myself … Now I know that I can conduct" . After the premiere Tchaikovsky described his debut: "At the appointed time I felt semi-conscious. When the fateful moment came, I walked to the podium like an automaton. Deafening applause broke out, wreathes were handed down from the stage, and the orchestra played a flourish. At once I began to feel relaxed. I began the overture very confidently, and as time went on I became calmer and calmer… The unanimous view is that I am a talented conductor"  . After 6/18 March 1888 the opera Cherevichki was not staged during the Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. On 1/13 December 1891 Tchaikovsky conducted its overture at a charity concert in Saint Petersburg.
The revision of Vakula the Smith introduced the following major changes into the opera: the scene and duet of Vakula and Oksana (No. 6) were expanded, and the final scene of Act I (No. 7) was written anew; the Schoolteacher's Song and the quintet in the act 2 were newly composed, as were Vakula's Song (an additional aria) and His Highness's couplets in Act III. Besides this, the composer introduced a number of changes to the recitatives. In many recitative episodes, developed orchestral parts were replaced by a simple chordal accompaniment, which significantly simplified the orchestral texture. In the overture one bar was added before the recapitulation, and the harmony was changed slightly. After the new score had already been compiled, apparently during rehearsals, Tchaikovsky altered the instrumentation in Oksana's aria, as well as the beginning of the vocal part .
Responding to the enquiry by Pyotr Jurgenson regarding the possibility of selling individual numbers from Vakula the Smith , Tchaikovsky replied: "Vakula the Smith should have been destroyed a long time ago. One can certainly sell individual numbers, but only a few of them remain unchanged:
At the request of Dmitry Usatov, who sang the part of Vakula, Tchaikovsky wrote an additional song for Vakula in the first scene of the third act to words by the poet Nikolay Chayev. The composer based this on a folk song "Oh, do not frighten me" («Ой, не пугай, пугаченьку»), taken from A. Rubets' collection of Ukrainian folk songs (part 1, No. 1) .
The composer's love for Vakula the Smith extended also to Cherevichki as well. "I certainly believe in the future of Cherevichki as a repertoire opera", Tchaikovsky wrote, "and in terms of music I regard it as among the best of my operas" .
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 70–73
This page was last updated on 03 April 2013