Catherine II the Great (1729–1796), Empress of Russia was not only an opera fan, a patroness of the arts, music and theatre, but also an opera librettist. She commissioned some well-known Russian and foreign composers to provide music for her texts.
The Imperial opera and ballet theatre were founded by imperial decree in 1783, and the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre was built in St Petersburg for opera and ballet performances that surpassed the great European theatres in their brilliance and luxury.
She wrote nine opera texts in addition to fourteen comedies, seven proverbs (short plays), and other dramatic writings. In writing these texts she was supervised by other writers including Ivan Perfilevich Elagin, and Alexander Vasilyevich Khrapovitsky.
She was intelligent enough to be self-critical, stating in her letter to Voltaire that her dramatic works were weak in plot and ill-sustained in intrigue, but natural and true in their characterization.
She chose Vasily Pashkevich to compose music for her dramatic fairy tale Fevey. This was staged on April 30 [OS April 19], 1786 at the Hermitage Theatre in St Petersburg. The lavish opera production evoked widespread admiration.
The Italian-trained composer Yevstigney Fomin was chosen to compose an opera-ballet to her libretto The Novgorod Hero Boyeslayevich (Новгородский богатырь Боеслаевич – Novgorodskiy bogatyr’ Boyeslayevich, staged on December 8 [OS October 27], 1786 at St Petersburg).
The subject of the fairy tale on Fuflych-Bogatyr (Fuflych Unfortunate Hero) was suggested by Count Orlov. Catherine made this a parody on her cousin Gustav III, King of Sweden. The libretto was set to music by Vicente Martin y Soler, a Spanish composer settled in Russia in 1788. The opera Gore-Bogatyr Kosometovich (Горе-Богатырь Косометович – The Unfortunate Hero Kosometovich March 30 [OS February 9], 1789 Hermitage Theatre, St Petersburg) with an overture on three Russian tunes had a great success and Great Princes Alexander and Konstantin knew it by heart. However Catherine, to avoid a political scandal, put a note in the printed libretto “Do not perform in the Town Theatre for the foreign ministers”. Prince Potemkin who attended the third performance of the opera agreed to this.
Catherine wished the famous Domenico Cimarosa to set her drama on the subject from early history of Russia The Early Reign of Oleg (1786), but he was too slow, and she replaced him with Giuseppe Sarti who wrote the opera together with Pashkevich and Milanese musician C. Cannobio, staged on October 26, [OS October 15] 1790 at Hermitage Theatre
The opera to her libretto Fedul s det’mi (Федул с детьми – Fedul and his Children was written by Vasily Pashkevich with Martin y Soler) and premiered on January 27 ([OS January 16]), 1791 in St Petersburg.