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Theatre / The Snow Maiden

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The Snow Maiden (Russian: Снегурочка, Snegurochka) is a fairytale drama written in 1873 by Alexandr Ostrovsky, and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov based on the play, with the libretto being quite faithful to the plot. The story has become very famous in Russia, and it introduced the character of the Snow Maiden into popular culture and Christmas/New Year folklore.

The plot is based on a Russian fairytale from the collections of Alexander Afanasyev. Additionally, though it might be a coincidence and not a deliberate allusion, the play has quite a few similarities to A Midsummer Night's Dream.


The Snow Maiden, fairylike daughter of Grandfather Frost and Spring Beauty, longs to live among people – the merry folk of Berendeys. Her parents let her live in the village, and she's adopted by Bobyl Bakula, the poorest peasant. The Snow Maiden is attracted by Lel, a handsome and charming young shepherd, singer and womanizer, but he soon coldens towards her – as Frost's daughter, she knows no true love. Meanwhile, she finds herself, unwillingly and unwittingly, the cause of her best friend Kupava's humiliation and despair – Kupava's bridegroom Mizgir leaves her, enchanted by the Snow Maiden. Kupava pleads to Tsar Berendey for justice. It soon becomes clear that the core of all problems is the Snow Maiden's inability to either understand or feel real love.


The play and the opera contain examples of:

  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Some adaptations of the opera cut the love duet of Lel and Kupava and the ensuing scene with the Snow Maiden startling the couple. It creates a huge plot hole concerning the Snow Maiden's motivations, since it is the fact Lel has left her for Kupava for good that prompts the Snow Maiden to beg her mother for the gift of love (she finally realizes the less beautiful Kupava has something she lacks). Without that scene, it looks like nearly getting raped by Mizgir is what prompts her to want to feel passion (in the play, she outright tells him: "If that's what you call love, then I don't want to feel it").
  • Adaptational Heroism: The Soviet animated adaptation and any adaptations aimed at younger audiences significantly downplay Mizgir's callousness and cruelty.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Yelena the Fair, wife of Boyar Bermyata, isn't in the opera, and her character's cut from most adaptations. Rightly so – basically she does nothing but drool over Lel.
    • In a loose feature adaptation of the play, A Spring Tale, the Wood Spirit is left out. Grandfather Frost isn't there either.
  • Aerith and Bob: All characters have names in pre-Christian Slavic style… and then there is Yelena (Helen) the Fair. However, it's possible that Bermyata, the Tsar's first Boyar, could afford to choose a bride from another country. It’s emphasized in A Spring Tale, where she has a more European-style dress and wears her hair in Regal Ringlets, as opposed to other women’s loose or braided hair.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: It goes for most of the main female characters. Fickle womanizers are the center of attention, while kind-hearted Berendey (a Tsar, mind you!) is single and his equally benevolent Boyar has horns on a daily basis.
  • Alone Among the Couples: The Snow Maiden in the beginning of the first act, her great fear throughout the second and partly the third one.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: "Set in prehistoric times", says the author. But it's not what we'd call prehistoric now. Mizgir mentions Muslims when describing his travels in the play, so this effectively dates the setting to the period between the 7th century (the beginning of Islam) and the end of the 10th century (the Eastern Slavs converting to Christianity). Nothing more specific.
  • Anywhere but Their Lips: Lel and Kupava's kiss in the opera is usually either this or Almost Kiss, because Lel's mostly played by women.
  • Attractiveness Isolation: Subverted. The Snow Maiden knows quite well that she's beautiful but feels something is wrong with her as almost everybody, Lel in particular, eventually rejects her. But she concludes that for some reason Lel thinks Kupava prettier, as she doesn't understand that it's her frigidity that drives men away.
  • Awful Wedded Life: No marriage is ever happy. Grandfather Frost and Spring Beauty would have split up long ago, had it not been for the Snow Maiden, Bobyl and Bobylikha are always squabbling because of the former's drunkardness, and Boyar Bermyata's wife Yelena is constantly cheating on him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • Kupava's first lines are all about her pity for the poor Snow Maiden – boys have lost interest in her, even Lel is bored with her! A few minutes later, the Snow Maiden gets a very ardent suitor, namely Kupava's intended.
    • Also, in the first act Mizgir says he'll give his life if the Snow Maiden loves him. In the third act, it's exactly what happens.
    • The Snow Maiden's wish to feel love. She knows she'll most probably melt if she feels it, but she's ready to risk it. Well, she melts.
  • Benevolent Mage Ruler: Spring Beauty. Arguably Yarilo.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the film adaptations, the Snow Maiden and Lel are fair while Kupava and Mizgir are dark-haired (except for the stop-motion short one where Lel has red hair). In most of the opera productions, the Snow Maiden is dressed in white or light blue and Kupava wears bright red.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Several of them in the opera. Lel is a mezzo-soprano (usually; sometimes a countertenor can be cast too), as is the Tsar's Page. Maslenitsa Carnival (a female entity in Russian folklore) is a baritone.
  • Damsel in Distress: It was a close one for the Snow Maiden when she was assaulted by Mizgir. Luckily, the Battle Butler Wood Spirit, assigned to protect her, did his job Just in Time. Or, in A Spring Tale, luckily she manages to push Mizgir away herself.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance. The Berendeyan folk are purposefully portrayed with a very different moral code. Dumping your bride is an unheard-of evil – but it can be pardoned if you manage to defrost the girl who was actually the cause of it. Death penalty is something to be avoided at all costs – but the death of a perfectly innocent girl and suicide of her bridegroom (although this one was not so innocent) aren't worth a glance because it was a sacrifice to the sun.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • In the opera, Kupava's father and the village couples are just random people in the chorus.
    • Bermyata only has a few lines in the opera, and the whole subplot of his troubled marriage is cut out. Same goes for any adaptation that doesn’t feature his wife.
    • In A Spring Tale, ironically, it’s Spring. She only pops up in the end to grant the Snow Maiden the ability to love, having never been mentioned before.
  • Disneyfication: In the animated adaptation, intended specifically to introduce children to the opera, there has been quite a lot of cuts, but most notably the Attempted Rape scene. Instead of chasing the Snow Maiden to "make her his wife", as he puts it, Mizgir runs after her to console her when she breaks into hysterics as Lel chooses Kupava. However, the protective Wood Spirit still leads him off the Snow Maiden's trail.
    • In A Spring Tale, the marriage issues of Spring Beauty aren't shown at all and the deaths of the protagonists are never shown straight on-screen.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Permanent exile into wilderness for breaking an engagement sounds just a bit too excessive.
  • Double Entendre: A blink-and-you'll-miss-it example in act three. The Snow Maiden is holding a flower wreath when Mizgir professes his passion for her. When she rejects him, he is outraged and, before trying to take her by force, says, among other things: "Throw away your girlish flowers!" The original Russian adjective can mean both "girlish" and "virginal".
  • Driven to Suicide: Mizgir after the Snow Maiden dies in his arms at their wedding with a Dying Declaration of Love.
  • The Easy Way or the Hard Way: In the third act Mizgir is determined not to let the Snow Maiden go until she agrees to be his wife. He means it. He really means it.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • The minor characters are kept nameless – the Tsar's Page, for example.
    • Bobyl is an archaic Russian word for a peasant with no land of his own. Although Bobyl has a name (Bakula), he's usually addressed or referred to as Bobyl. The real name of his wife, Bobylikha (ikh is a feminine suffix), remains unknown.
    • Arguably the Wood Spirit: some Wood Spirits in Russian folklore have personal names.
  • Fire and Ice Love Triangle: The passionate and excitable Kupava vs. the quiet and aloof Snow Maiden. When Mizgir sees the latter, he instantly figures out that actually it's modesty and quietness that he values most!
  • Gold Digger: Bobyl and Bobylikha on the Snow Maiden’s behalf (the foolish girl just won’t act as one herself!). As soon as they notice Mizgir’s interest in her, they don’t hesitate to ask for every rich gift possible. Being so smitten with the Snow Maiden, he doesn’t care.
  • Heavy Sleeper: What the Wood Spirit really wants is to get some sleep in his tree-hole, and that's where he remains for the most part of the plot, appearing only three times. The first time, he announces that Frost is leaving and he, the Spirit, is off to bed. Afterwards, only very loud voices can wake him, and only if these are the voices of Frost or his daughter.
  • Heel Realization: After a whole night of running around in the woods after his own hallucinations thanks to the Wood Spirit's magic, Mizgir finally gets it into his head that the Snow Maiden is afraid of him and that he really shouldn't have stalked and tried to force her. Only she isn't afraid anymore, though. Although he doesn't quite let go of his usual It's All About Me attitude, which leads to tragedy.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: The Snow Maiden in comparison with both her suitors in both feature adaptations.
  • I'm Melting!: The Snow Maiden. 100% literally. Judging by her own description, looks like Lustful Melt.
  • The Ingenue: The Snow Maiden. Everyone sees that. Grandfather Frost points out that the sun can't melt the girl as long as her soul is pure like a baby's. Later, Lel reproaches her for her "childish" concept of love, and Mizgir affectionately calls her "child" (in the French translation, repeatedly).
  • Innocent Soprano: The titular heroine, a lyric coloratura soprano, is a naive child of Father Frost and Spring Beauty, completely unable to understand the concept of passionate love.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Kupava tries to drown herself after Mizgir leaves her. Lel pulls her away from the river.
  • Jealous Romantic Witness: The Snow Maiden has to watch her sweetheart Lel kiss Kupava in front of everyone, after the Tsar tells Lel to pick a girl to kiss in reward for his beautiful song. Later she secretly watches Lel and Kupava declare their love for each other, which leads her to realise she lacks something Kupava has (being a Tragic Ice Character, the Snow Maiden can feel platonic love but has zero concept of passion and sexual relations).
  • Ladykiller in Love: Lel for the Snow Maiden (to the point when he weeps when they're separated) and then in a much stronger way for Kupava.
  • Love at First Sight: Mizgir for the Snow Maiden.
  • Love Dodecahedron. Lel is adored by all village girls, and he flirts with all of them (sometimes with several at the same moment). The Snow Maiden likes Lel but actually doesn't love him, and she is adored by all village boys whom she all rejects. Oh, and also by Mizgir, who is Kupava's fiancé, and Kupava ends up with Lel. At Berendey's court, Yelena the Fair has both the Tsar himself and her husband Bermyata wrapped around her finger, and she also has time to sneak off at night to meet… guess who?.. yeah, Lel. While village boys eventually pair with village girls.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Mizgir is very nice and pleasant… that is, until he sees the Snow Maiden.
  • Love You and Everybody: Lel's motto until he settles with Kupava.
  • May–December Romance: Or, rather, Mayfly-"Decemberfly", because both are immortal. Namely Spring Beauty and Grandfather Frost.
  • Moral Myopia: Mizgir chides Kupava for declaring her love for him too openly and calls her shameless. Right. Says who.
  • Mum Looks Like a Sister: In the 1968 film adaptation, as well as many stagings of the opera, Spring Beauty and the Snow Maiden look like sisters rather than mother and daughter (in the 1968 film, for example, Natalya Klimova, playing the former, is just eight years older than Eugenia Filonova, playing the latter). Justified, since Spring Beauty is an eternally young fairy.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The Snow Maiden repeatedly warns Mizgir that sunshine is dangerous to her now. But in his Love Epiphany, he waves it off. Then she melts during the nuptial ceremony. Yeah.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Berendey's conclusion of the whole thing. Doesn't matter that the Snow Maiden and Mizgir had died horrible deaths, it's for Yarilo the Sun to judge what's right. Even though the Snow Maiden's only fault was her very existence.
  • Naïve Newcomer: The Snow Maiden, physically aged fifteen, is at least about five years younger psychologically (until the final scenes). Her concept of love is actually equal to Just Friends relationship, and that leads to all her misfortunes. When Lel asks for a kiss, she thinks it the same as the usual kiss of greeting. When Mizgir falls to his knees before her, she is scared and asks him to stand up. And, although she's aching to be Lel's bride, she is much less enthusiastic at the idea of being a wife
  • Nature Spirit: Grandfather Frost, Spring Beauty, and the Wood Spirit – Frost's minion and the Snow Maiden's guard. Also Yarilo, though he's only mentioned and never makes an appearance save for the very end.
  • On the Rebound: Pair the Spares, in fact. Lel, after being thrown out of Bobyl's house where he still hoped to win the Snow Maiden's love, plus Kupava, after her disastrous breakup.
  • One True Love: The Snow Maiden for Mizgir, if you believe him. There's some doubt on whether she's his Second Love: in the first act, he says he had loved Kupava, in the third, insists that he had really loved no one before the Snow Maiden.
  • The Philosopher King: Berendey almost to the extreme. Look, there's a trial to finish – and the Tsar suddenly bursts into a speech/aria about the beauty of nature.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: In Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2017 production, played straight with Lel and inverted with Mizgir. In this staging, the Snow Maiden falls passionately in love with Lel and it’s to him that she says all her tender farewells in the melting scene. Meanwhile, though she does sing the love duet with Mizgir, her expressions and body language show she is as repulsed by him as before.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Mizgir is one of the richest merchants (if not the richest one) in the tsardom, Lel doesn't even have a roof of his own. For Bobyl Bakula and his wife, it's the main reason they welcome Mizgir with open arms and throw Lel out without even asking the Snow Maiden what she thinks of all this.
    Mizgir (in the midst of a Green-Eyed Epiphany): If I give money, I'll have its worth. Keep Lel away, old man, or I won't have anything to do with you!
    Bobyl: Bless you! What's Lel to us? Snow Maiden, dear daughter, our guest doesn't like Lel standing at the door!
    • As Kupava is rich herself, it obviously doesn't matter for her father that the shepherd is Unable to Support a Wife – Lel saves Kupava from death and disgrace, and that's what counts.
  • Refuse to Rescue the Disliked: "Come, sweet Lel, save the Snow Maiden!" But Lel doesn't even appear – he's busy somewhere else looking for his new sweetheart Kupava.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Berendey and his court find out that the Snow Maiden is an example, after first hearing Kupava calling her an evil traitor and then meeting her in person.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Mizgir doesn't even deny it. On second thought, the Snow Maiden herself always followed Lel so persistently, the poor guy had a hard time shaking her off.
  • Sustained Misunderstanding: As the Snow Maiden doesn't know what love and passion are, it's like that whenever she talks with anyone of love or feelings or kisses. Especially in her scene with Mizgir when she's absolutely oblivious that by "love" he means virginity.
  • Technical Pacifist: Tsar Berendey.
  • Took a Level in Kindness:
    • Downplayed with Mizgir. After a Break the Haughty he lives through thanks to the Wood Spirit, he does realise asking the Snow Maiden’s consent is important before wooing her. However, much of his selfishness is still there, so he refuses to take her warnings that she is about to die seriously.
    • A meta version. Grandfather Frost, though never a villain, is very strict and harsh in the play (and in the folk tales about him). But thanks to the play's popularity he became the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in Russia.
  • Tragic Ice Character: The Snow Maiden is lonely in her magical forest and longs for human company. Her parents allow her to live among humans, but even then, the Snow Maiden cannot be happy: she desperately wants to feel passionate love (thanks to her mother's heritage) but is unable to do so (thanks to her father's heritage). It leads to the young man she likes dumping her after he is fed up with her frigidity and naivete. Then, she finally gets her wish to fall in love (with her other suitor) but right after that, she melts in the sun like ordinary snow, and her bridegroom kills himself. On top of it all? Everybody else shrugs it off, saying that the Snow Maiden was an abomination and so deserved to die to restore the balance of nature.
  • Treacherous Spirit Chase: Try to lay a finger on the Snow Maiden, and the Wood Spirit will give you one.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Grandfather Frost for Spring Beauty. She herself states she had flirted with him only for fun's sake.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Kupava used to be the Snow Maiden's most devoted and caring friend. She doesn't even mourn her death in the end.
  • Weddings for Everyone: Tsar Berendey's idea of greeting the coming summer.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: The Snow Maiden's main question throughout the plot.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: The Snow Maiden.