From Russia with Love -- and Laughs: Glinka's 'Ruslan and Lyudmila'

The Story of 'Ruslan and Lyudmila"

WOO-1209-Ruslan-300-3The opera’s five acts are preceded by a rollicking virtuoso overture that's become a concert hall favorite. In ACT ONE Svetozar, the Prince of Kiev, is celebrating the marriage of his daughter Lyudmila to the young knight Ruslan. Lyudmila says goodbye to her family, and to two rejected suitors -- the knight Farlaf and the young prince Ratmir.

The poet Bayan provides entertainment – a lengthy song predicting the couple will face severe trials before they find true happiness. The crowd tells him to sing something more cheerful -- but his prophecy comes true. As the couple is being escorted to the wedding chamber, a strange darkness falls, and when the light returns Lyudmila has disappeared. (In the original poem, she’s taken straight from their bed, at the height of bliss -- a scene that’s more risqué but less spectacular than Glinka’s version).

Lyudmila’s father is panic stricken. He promises her hand to the first man who can find her, and bring her home. So, suddenly, the rejected Farlaf and Ratmir have one more chance to win Lyudmila for themselves. As Act One ends the two of them and Ruslan set all off in search of the missing bride.

In ACT TWO, Ruslan meets the benelovent sorcerer Finn. He tells Ruslan that Lyudmila has been kidnapped by the evil dwarf Chernomor, who lives in a remote northern castle. And Finn warns Ruslan at length about the witch Naina.

WOO-1209-Ruslan-300-4Meanwhile, we catch up with Farlaf -- who meets Naina in person. The witch is determined to spoil Ruslan and Lyudmila’s love, and promises to help Farlaf win the Lyudmila for himself.

Then it's back to Ruslan. He’s lost his weapons defeating a rogue knight, but now he stumbles on an ancient battlefield, covered with rotting bones and discarded weapons. He rearms himself and goes on. Soon, he encounters a huge, disembodied head.

The head is what remains of the dwarf Chernomor’s giant brother, after the two quarreled over a sword with magical powers. Chernomor won, and used the sword to behead his brother. Now that sword is lying under the stranded head -- and it’s the only way to cut off the dwarf’s long beard, and disable his powers. Ruslan grabs the sword, and takes off to find Chernomor.

To begin ACT THREE, we pick up Ratmir’s trail. Naina’s main aim, in helping Farlaf, is to obstruct Ruslan. But because she hates all blissful lovers, she also wants to stymie Ratmir, who's now in love with his servant Gorislava. Naina lures Ratlif and Ruslan into a trap -- a castle filled with nubile young maidens. But, Finn shows up just in time to save the day, breaking all of Naina’s spells. As the act ends, Ratmir and Gorislava are back together, while Ruslan is still determined to rescue Lyudmila, and all three of them head off to find her.

At the start of ACT FOUR, we get our first sight of Lyudmila since she was abducted in Act One. Held prisoner in Chernomor's castle, Lyudmila has given up hope of rescue, and tries to drown herself in a river. Water nymphs stop her from committing suicide, and we then meet her notorious captor. Chernomor never speaks, but he makes quite a spectacle as he arrives on a large cushion carried by slaves, with entertainment by three different troupes of dancers.

WOO-1209-Ruslan-300-5The scene is interrupted when Ruslan arrives in the distance, ready for battle. Chernomor puts Lyudmila under a spell and goes off to the fight, which Ruslan wins, thanks to the powerful sword.

Ruslan enters Chernomor’s castle in triumph, carrying the dwarf’s magic beard. When he finds Lyudmilla, Chernomor's spell has left her in a deep sleep, and Ruslan can’t wake her up. Together with Gorislava and Ratmir, he rushes Lyudmila toward Kiev and home.

But along the way, in ACT FIVE, Lyudmila is abducted by Farlaf while Ruslan’s back is turned. Thanks to Chernomor's magic Lyudmila is still unconscious. Farlaf picks her up and lugs her back to Kiev, where her father the prince is none too pleased to have his daughter returned in a coma.

Meanwhile, Ruslan gets a magic ring from the sorcerer Finn. When Ruslan eventually gets to Kiev, he touches the ring to Lyudmila’s forehead, and she instantly wakes up, and recognizes him. As the opera ends, the crowd ushers the newlyweds back to their wedding chamber -- where they were so rudely interrupted in the first place.