Christmas Stories at the Theater

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

It’s that time of the year again! With Christmas just a few days away, we often recount stories we heard as children and replay plays, ballets, and other shows we may have witnessed in our heads. For me, Christmas has always been filled with reading stories by the fireplace in the living room, going to concerts of Christmas carols and festive music, and going to the theater to see a show. However, somehow the shows performed at Christmastime seem to always be the same. While I’m one for tradition and nostalgia, I can’t help but think about all the wonderful theatrical works that would add a pleasant variety to the season. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker has not only become not a Christmas tradition, but an institution and a must for ballet companies to perform each year. In the realm of opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors has become a staple in Christmas-themed repertoire. Furthermore, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) has been adapted as a stage play an immeasurable amount of times.

Today I’d like to introduce you to a few theatrical works that have either been forgotten or pushed aside. They are sure to put you in the same Christmas spirit that The Nutcracker and Amahl and the Night Visitors have put you in before. It is not my intent to leave any theatrical works out. I had considered including several works (such as Carl Davis’ A Christmas Carol), but as I gravitated towards telling the stories of these pieces, I aimed to tell the stories of less traditional tales that you may have never heard of before. For those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, I hope you enjoy these pieces for the works that they are. Happy Holidays!

Снегурочка (Snegurochka – The Snow Maiden)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Incidental Music

The fifteen-year-old Snow Maiden lives in a village near Tsar Berendey’s capital. She resides with her parents, Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost, and they agree to let her be adopted by Bobyl-Bakula and his wife. After moving to Berendeyevka, Snow Maiden finds herself to be enchanted by Lel’s singing, but she is saddened when he goes off with another group of girls. Kupava suddenly announces her wedding to Mizgir to the village. Mizgir, however, has become smitten with Snow Maiden; he begs her to love him. Witnessing the betrayal, Kupava addresses the effrontery to the villagers, and they advise her to go to the Tsar to remedy the situation. Tsar Berendey banishes Mizgir to the forest, but the appearance of the beautiful Snow Maiden changes his mind. He asks her whom she loves. She replies that she loves no one, and Tsar devises a plan. Whoever successfully woos Snow Maiden will win both her and a royal reward. The odds are in Lel’s favor, but Mizgir swears that he will win her heart. Despite Snow Maiden’s pleas, Lel kisses Kupava and leaves with her. Mizgir sees that she has been rejected, and he attempts to win her love once more. She is frightened by his words and runs away. Mizgir tries to follow Snow Maiden, but a Wood-Sprite tricks him into following an apparition of her. Snow Maiden finds Lel, but seeing his happiness with Kupava, she finally wishes to have the capacity to love (an ability she was never born with). Snow Maiden calls out to her mother, who appears from a lake to give her a garland and the warning to stay out of the sunlight. Before being able to return into the forest for protection, Snow Maiden sees Mizgir and professes her love for him. At a celebration for Yarilo’s Day (the sun god), Mizgir introduces Snow Maiden as his bride. As she publicly announces her love for Mizgir, a bright ray of sunlight appears and melts her. The inconsolable Mizgir drowns himself in the lake. Snow Maiden’s death ends a fifteen-year-long winter that has befallen the Berendeyan people.

Before settling on including this piece in this blog, I tossed the idea around a few times. To those of us in America, this story would just seem like a story set in winter; however, a dear friend of mine in Saint Petersburg informed me that the tale of Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) is a popular Russian Christmas tale. Snegurochka is the grands daughter of the Russian Father Christmas. Secondly, I couldn’t decide on whether or not to mention Tchaikovsky’s music to Ostrovsky’s play or Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic adaptation. I eventually settled on Tchaikovsky’s incidental music because it is by far the less popular of the two. I also chose it simply because I find the music to be the better of the two, and because I find it more palatable than Rimsky-Korsakov’s massive, yet still impressive, opera.

Черевички (Cherevichki)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

The widow Solokha agrees to help the Devil steal the moon. He is annoyed with her son, Vakula, who painted an icon mocking him. As revenge, the Devil creates a snowstorm to prevent Vakula from seeing his beloved Oxana. While the storm rages on, Solokha soars through the sky and steals the moon. Oxana’s father Chub and the Deacon are also unable to find their way through the storm. As a result, Oxana is alone and lonely until Vakula finds her, and he proclaims his love for her. Chub returns home out of the storm, and Vakula, not recognizing him, chases Chub out of his own home by striking him. Oxana is enraged and sends him away, but she realizes she still loves Vakula. In Solokha’s hut, three men including the Devil wind up in three sacks after trying to seduce her. Vakula, unsuspecting, ends up hauling the heavy sacks away. Oxana finds Vakula and shames him into getting her the Tsaritsa’s boots. If he doesn’t, she will refuse to marry him. He departs threatening suicide, and he leaves two of the bags behind, the bags carrying the Deacon and Chub. The Devil jumps out of Vakula’s sack and tries to trick him in exchanging his soul in exchange for Oxana, but Vakula instead climbs on the Devil’s back. He demands the Devil take him to the tsaritsa’s court in Saint Petersburg. The Devil hides in the fireplace while Vakula asks for the tsaritsa’s boots in a minuet. His wish is granted because of the peculiarity of the request. The Devil takes Vakula back home while the Christmas festivities continue in the court. On Christmas morning, Vakula has yet to return, and Solokha and Oxana believe he has drowned himself. The villagers invite the mourners to their Christmas feast, and Vakula returns with the boots in the middle of the festivities. Vakula begs for Chub’s forgiveness and asks for Oxana’s hand in marriage. She exclaims that it was him she wanted and not the boots. The Christmas feast is even more joyous with Vakula’s return and his engagement to Oxana.

Although including this piece meant having two Tchaikovsky works to talk about, I couldn’t resist. Cherevichki started its life as an opera titled Vakula the Smith, but it failed despite winning the competition it was written for. Tchaikovsky believed that by making some major edits and changing its name, the opera would stand a better chance of success. Although in his lifetime that wish came true, Cherevichki didn’t remain in favor after his passing. The opera’s music is among some of Tchaikovsky’s best (I have a hard time finding anything by Tchaikovsky to be intolerable). While the inclusion of the Devil could deter your thoughts away from this being a Christmas story, the Devil in this story, in my opinion, becomes more of a pushover creature that disappears when he realizes he won’t get what he wants. Besides, what could be better than a marriage proposal on Christmas Day after returning with glamorous presents?

Babes in Toyland

Victor Herbert (1859 – 1924)

Alan and Jane are now orphans and are wards of their wicked Uncle Barnaby. Barnaby, wanting to steal their inheritances, arranges to have them shipwrecked and lost at sea with the two sailors Gonzorgo and Roderigo. However, Alan and Jane are rescued by gypsies and take them back to Contrary Mary’s garden. Contrary Mary, believing her beloved Alan is dead, runs away with her brother, Tom-Tom, to avoid being married off to Barnaby. A second attempt on Alan and Jane’s lives leave them in the Forest of No Return. While taking shelter in the Spider’s Den, the siblings fall under the protection of the Moth Queen. Alan and Jane finally arrive in Toyland, find Contrary Mary and Tom-Tom, and seek protection from the Master Toymaker. Little do they know, the Master Toymaker is an evil genius who is working with Barnaby to create toys that kill. The demonic toys turn on the Master Toymaker and kill him. Barnaby, seeing this as an opportunity, blames Alan and has him sentenced to death. Contrary Mary agrees to marry Barnaby in exchange for Alan’s pardon, but after the marriage, Barnaby goes back on his word. In celebration, he drinks a glass of wine, but it was filled with poison that was meant for Alan. Alan is still a condemned man, but Tom-Tom reveals an old law of Toyland permitting marriage between a widow and a condemned man on the condition that he supports her and will save him from the gallows. Alan and Contrary Mary are immediately wed, and he is saved from execution.

The original 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert is much darker than any version made from the 1970s onwards. I grew up with watching the 1997 cartoon video. It was one of the few videos on VHS that my grandparents kept on their shelves for us to watch, and when I was doing research for this blog, I came across the operetta. I had never realized that this monumental piece of my childhood was originally an operetta, and an incredible one at that. The first two minutes of the Prologue are incredibly serene, and I never expected music like that to have been part of something I held so dear as a kid.

Der Schneemann (The Snowman)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957)

The musician Pierrot is trying to serenade Columbine, but he is rebuffed by her uncle Pantalon. Pierrot then buys her a life-sized Father Christmas doll as a gift, but children prevent him from delivering it to her by throwing snowballs at the saddened Pierrot. The children then build a snowman outside Columbine’s window. Seeing this as an opportunity, Pierrot puts on a snowman’s costume and takes place of the one that the children built. Columbine stares longingly at the snowman, and an irritated Pantalon demands the snowman come into the house. With the original snowman back in place, Pantalon becomes drunk and sees multiple snowmen. Tired and confused, Pantalon goes to bed and falls asleep. Pierrot and Columbine declare their love for one another and run away. When Pantalon awakes, he realizes he has been tricked and runs after the couple. The real snowman has been put back into the yard, and Pantalon attacks the man made of snow thinking it is Pierrot. As he tears the snowman apart, the children dance around him and mock him.

This short ballet is such a colorful piece of music. Korngold composed this ballet for piano only at the age of 11, but it was later orchestrated by his teacher Alexander Zemlinsky. When I first discovered this piece, I was left dumbstruck at it’s beauty. It so expertly depicts a winter scene. Der Schneemann’s bright and brilliant score always leaves me imagining a light snow fall against a freshly covered house and yard. It comes with the desire to cuddle up by a fire with a warm cup of tea in my hand, sharing time with my loved ones.

Das Christ-Elflein (The Little Elf of Christ)

Hans Pfitzner (1869 – 1949)
Incidental Music/Opera

Elflein approaches his friend Tannengreis, and old tree spirit, and asks why humans ring bells and sing at Christmas. Tannengreis, expressing his mistrust and hatred of the humans, ignores the elf’s question. Frieder von Gumpach passes by on his way to the village doctor. His sister, Trautchen, is dying and he no longer believes in God. When Elflein asks the same questions to him, Frieder also ignores them. Franz and Jochen, servants of Frieder and Trautchen’s father, make their way through the forest to cut down a Christmas tree and end up having an encounter with Knecht Ruprecht (a companion of Saint Nicholas in German folklore). The Christ Child appears before all and announces that he will bring Trautchen the Christmas tree. Elflein is fascinated by the Christ Child, but Tannengreis scolds the elf and warns him to stay away from humans and their religions. The servants are prevented from cutting down the tree as an angel appears to announce that it is Christmas Eve. The Christ Child departs for the von Gumpach house, and Elflein goes with him. Herr von Gumpach scolds the two servants for not returning with a Christmas tree. In protest, they say they have seen the living Christ Child, but he doesn’t believe them. Trautchen is brought in and sits by the stove. Knecht Ruprecht arrives with village children who explain the tradition of the Christmas tree. The Christ Child appears with Elflein bringing the tree for Trautchen, but he tells everyone he has come to bring the sick Trautchen to heaven. Elflein takes pitty on Trautchen and offers to take her place. The Christ Child agrees to the swap, and gives him permission to come back to earth every Christmas to visit Tannengreis. He is granted a new name, “Christ-Elflein”. Christ-Elflein is brought up to heaven by the angels, and Trautchen is cured. Frieder regains his faith in God, and Tannengreis is reconciled to humans.

I had never heard of this piece before until I was doing research for this blog. At first I found myself to be completely disinterested in using it, but when I listened to the music I had to find a synopsis of the story. I think that what ultimately attracted me to the story was its combination of the religious aspect of Christmas with the fairy tales and folk tales we often add to it in our Western traditions. Added to the story, the music was simply breathtaking, and I felt that I had to share this rare Christmas gem with you. I certainly hope that you enjoy it.

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

3 thoughts on “Christmas Stories at the Theater

  1. I’m not very well versed when it comes to the theater or opera, but I really enjoyed reading about these pieces — especially the German ones. The pieces really transport you to another place, another time.

    Liked by 1 person

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