While the Fountain of Tears bubbles before him, Giray, khan of the Tatars, is lost in brooding. Just as the flow from the marble fount cannot be exhausted, his own sorrow will never diminish, either. The story of the Fountain of Bakhchisarai
is set in motion by a romance recounting the reason for the khan's gloom. This work is one of the cornerstones of Russian ballet history, and since its premiere has enjoyed unbroken success as a representative of the genre of ballet drama, in which a dramatic performance is closely intertwined with the use of the classical language of dance and character dances. The choreographer of the work, Rotislav Zakharov, was powerfully drawn to Russian literary sources, making Pushkin's poem of the same title an obvious choice for his work, for which Boris Asafyev composed the music. The subject is a truly dramatic one: a story of jealous love. Giray, khan of the tatars has fallen wildly into love with Maria, whom he and his Tatars have abducted and forced into his harem just as she was preparing for her wedding. Zarema, the khan's first wife, does not take kindly to this situation. Tragedy is inevitable...
This work has been an important piece in the Hungarian National Ballet's repertoire since it was first premiered at the Opera House in 1952. After some years of absence, the old favourite returned to the stage in 2018.
By the Fountain of Tears, Giray Khan reminisisces.
The park surrounding the castle of the Polish nobleman Potocki, where a birthday celebration for Potocki's daughter, Maria, is underway.
“Her form a thousand charms unfolded,
Her face by beauty's self was moulded,
Her dark blue eyes were full of fire,--
All nature's stores on her were lavished.”
The beautiful Maria has unsurprisingly already attracted a serious suitor: the youthful nobleman Waclaw. The garden party begins, and the guests begin to dance. The younger men vie to demonstrate their skill at arms, and then Maria and Waclaw also dance. Unbeknownst to all of them, however, the Tatars are lurking nearby. After the guests file into the castle, Maria and Waclaw are left alone in the garden for a few minutes to enjoy the sweetness of their blossoming love. The guests return, and just as the revelry reaches its peak, a mortally wounded knight appears to announce that the castle has been surrounded by Tatars.
“The Tartar's force
Rushed like a torrent o'er her nation,
Rages less fierce the conflagration
Devouring harvests in its course,
Poland it swept with devastation.”
The Tatars slaughter the men defending the castle and carry off the women. Waclaw valiantly rescues Maria and is about to slay Giray, but with a lightning-fast movement, the battle-hardened khan stabs the young man in the heart. Only then does he notice Maria, frozen in fear. Ripping off the white veil that covers the girl's face, Giray is instantly bewitched by her remarkable beauty. Inflamed in his wild Tatar soul is a passion like nothing he has ever experienced...
The harem in Giray Khan's Bakhchisaray Palace
"The captives pass their joyless hours.
The youngest seek, indeed, reprieve,
Their hearts in striving to deceive,
Into oblivion of distress,
By vain amusements, gorgeous dress,
Or by the noise of living streams,
In soft translucency meand'ring,
To lose their thoughts in fancy's dreams,"
The khan's first wife, Zarema, has painstakingly groomed and dressed herself and now awaits the great lord's return from afar. The Tatar horde arrives, and Zarema sweetly greets her husband with cajoling desire. The khan, nonetheless, acts stiff and dismissive towards her. With the captive Maria, however, he behaves quite differently, even going so far as to obsequiously offer her his palace. Maria is pure and innocent. She rejects the khan and withdraws. As Giray broods, Zarema is thunderstruck and devastated. The eunuchs attempt to alleviate the atmosphere by having the girls dance, but to no avail. Zarema refuses to give up: the khan's love means the world to her. She summons up all her power and passion to regain Giray's attentions, but there is no room for her in her beloved man's heart. Her humiliation is compounded when the other women in the harem, usually envious of her, laugh spitefully at her woe.
“The Khan to her such freedom gave;
But rarely he himself offended
By visits, the desponding fair,
Remotely lodged, none else intruded;
It seemed as though some jewel rare,
Something unearthly were secluded,
And careful kept untroubled there.”
In her solitude, Maria dreams of her lost freedom and happiness. Giray visits her to passionately declare his love and ask for hers. He advances on her relentlessly, but the girl will not submit. Then the mighty khan retreats: he bows down before her and leaves her alone.
"The women sleep; --but one is there
Who sleeps not; goaded by despair
Her couch she quits with dread intent,
On awful errand is she bent;
Breathless she through the door swift flying
Passes unseen; her timid feet
Scarce touch the floor, she glides so fleet.
In doubtful slumber restless lying
The eunuch thwarts the fair one's path,
Ah! who can speak his bosom's wrath?
False is the quiet sleep would throw
Around that grey and care-worn brow;
She like a spirit vanished by
Viewless, unheard as her own sigh!”
Zarema eludes the guards and sneaks into Maria's room. There, she begs for the Polish girl to return her beloved to her. Maria calms her down, but Zarema spots Giray's cap, which has been left there. Believing that she has been tricked and enraged with jealousy, she draws a dagger and stabs Maria. The khan arrives, but it is too late. Consumed with boundless fury, he raises the dagger at Zarema, but does not kill her.
The rooftop of the khan's palace. Giray is inconsolable. Zarema is led in by the guards, and at a gesture from Nurali, Giray's sub-commander, is cast from the parapet to the ground far below.
“The fair Grusinian now no more
Yielded her soul to passion's power,
Her fate was with Maria's blended,
On the same night their sorrows ended;
Seized by mute guards the hapless fair
Into a deep abyss they threw,--
If vast her crime, through love's despair,
Her punishment was dreadful too!”
Nurali and the Tatar warriors attempt to lift the sullen khan's spirits with a wild dance.
At the Fountain of Tears, Giray Khan reminisces, seeing the figures of Maria and Zarema in his imagination. For Giray, love died along with Maria, and hope has vanished forever...
And the fountain?
“Th'inscription mid the silent waste
Not yet has time's rude hand effaced,
Still do the gurgling waters pour
Their streams dispensing sadness round,
As mothers weep for sons no more,
In never-ending sorrows drowned.”
(The excerpts from Pushkin's story in verse The Fountain of Bakhchisarai were translated from the Russian by William D. Lewis.)