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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Opera Review: No God, Only Religion

The Mariinsky Opera brings The Enchanted Wanderer to BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The swing of things: Kristin Kapustinskaya (downstage) as Grusha in The Enchanted Wanderer.
Photo by the Mariinsky Opera © 2015 Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The arrival of the musical forces of the Mariinsky Theater in New York is always a memorable occasion. On Wednesday night, the company unveiled its 2007 production of Rodion Shchedrin's 2002 opera The Enchanted Wanderer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Outside the theater, a knot of protesters held up pro-Ukraine placards, decrying the 2013 Russian invasion of the Crimea and the  close allegiance of music director Valery Gergiev with political strongman Vladmir Putin. Inside, opera-goers were treated to an opera that despite its recent vintage, recalled the grayish stage works of the late Soviet era.

Mr. Shchedrin made his reputation in the former Soviet Union as a composer of those "government approved" works, favored by the Communist regime for operas like Not Only Love (from 1961, set on a farm collective) and unchallenging rewrites of other composers like the Carmen Suite. However, Wanderer was actually commissioned by the late Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, and premiered in '02 at Avery Fisher Hall.  This 90-minute tale of old-style Russian monasticism, sex and murder (based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov) seemed curiously soul-less, despite its "spiritual" plot: the  portrait of a young wastrel who finds redemption at an island monastery.

The score combines Russian church choral modes, melismatic passages for the solo voice (there's nothing here that can really be called an aria) and florid outbursts of chromatic emotion which occasionally seared through the theological murk. 12-tone themes dive and rise against a carpet of glittering and diverse percussion forces--a trademark of this composer. Mr. Shchedrin's aim is for slow and dramatic build but under Mr. Gergiev's beat the effect was one of contemplative, almost total stillness, with jarring interjections whenever the plot needed to be moved forward.

This was not enough to prevent three fine singers from giving strong performances. As Ivan, the hapless hero whose long list of crimes (including killing another monk by flogging him enthusiastically and hurling his girlfriend off a cliff) make up the opera's thin plot, bass Oleg Sychov rose admirably to the occasion. A late replacement for Sergei Alekshashkin, Mr. Sychov sang the role with a dark and woody timbre, but failed to make this callow fellow an interesting or sympathetic protagonist.

The thrilling vocal discovery of the night was mezzo Kristin Kapustinskaya, who sang the role of Grusha here and on the Mariinsky Opera's recent recording of this work.  Despite playing the stock character of a seductive (and ultimately doomed) gypsy, Ms. Kapustinskaya delivered a magnetic performance that brought some much needed life to the evening. With her flashing eyes and rich, potent instrument, Ms. Kapustinskaya is a potential star of the future, playing her role with a force and abandon that seemed absent in the male members of the cast.

Ivan's wanderings bumped up against four different antagonists, played throughout the opera by tenor Andrei Popov. Mr. Popov brought a sweet, woodwind-like tone to his high-lying music, sketching each character rapidly and blending well when his vocal line crossed Mr. Sychov's. His most memorable characterizations were as the Prince, a callow aristocrat and the flogged monk, whose ghost haunts and propels Ivan for the duration of the opera. Mention must also be made of the Mariinsky chorus (confined to a platform above the stage action) who provided much of the vocal interest in this score. Also, the sturdy, often shirtless men of the ballet corps who engaged in rope games with the principal characters throughout the evening.

The Enchanted Wanderer was originally commissioned as an opera-in-concert. Here, director Alexei Stepanyuk gussied up the action by setting it on plain wooden boxes in a field of dried-out cat-tail plants and other reeds, accompanied by simple IKEA-style furnishings. (The sets are credited to Alexander Orlov.) The problem: that the actors and dancers crashed through the reeds repeatedly in the early moments, adding an unscored SNAP! CRACKLE! or POP! sound to Mr. Shchedrin's music.

The effect became almost comical in the latter half of the opera, when characters could not move without a underfoot as their feet crushed the broken, dried vegetation scattered on the stage. Such distractions did nothing for this work's already limited merit, except to suggest that the next revival of The Enchanted Wanderer bring the work back to the concert hall.

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