I saw this newish Russian opera (written in 2002) at BAM on 1/14, music and libretto by Rodion Shchedrin, after the novel by Leskov. The performance was the opening night of The Mariinsky at BAM, a two-week festival of performances by the St. Petersburg opera and ballet company. It was sold out, and everyone seemed to be up for a good time.
The opera opened in silence, which I thought was a strange idea. Some of the dancers, dressed as monks, wandered around the stage, and the orchestra eventually came in. This would make more sense if it were some clever director trying to do something original with yet another production of *The Marriage of Figaro* (“Oh, I know - - I’ll have the actors walk around before the music starts, that’s never been done before!”), but it didn’t make any sense for a new opera.
I’ll give you a sketchy outline of the story - - Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin is captured by Tartars, escapes, gets a job managing the horses for a prince. He goes overboard with the vodka one night and gives all the prince’s money to a gypsy songstress. The prince meets the gypsy and falls in love with her, but then leaves her and marries a rich woman. She goes to Ivan, tells him that if she lives one more day she’ll murder the prince and his wife. She couldn’t bear the shame of killing herself, so she begs him to kill her. He resists, but he promised to do what she asked, so he throws her over a cliff. And then he enters a monastery.
The bass playing Ivan, Sergei Aleksashkin, has a big dark rolling voice. The problem is he sang that way all night, there was no variety in color and precious little variety in dynamics. The tenor who played the prince, Andrei Popov, had one moment of glorious singing, where he sounded free and ringing. Otherwise he was snarling and hooting. The mezzo who played the gypsy, Kristina Kapustinskaya, had the most involving music of the three leads. She made her entrance like an apparition, later going full gypsy temptress, singing incantations and spinning around, wielding her fringed black shawl like Stevie Nicks had personally coached her. She had her long black hair pulled back in a bun in her first scene, and bore a striking resemblance to Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman in *This is Spinal Tap*. It took me a while to get over that, but I did.
The music - - a little Stravinsky here, a little Shostakovich there, a splash of *Salome* for color and perhaps a piece of Mahler lurking in there, too. There was some lovely, delicate writing for the female chorus, that was the high point of the score. Shchedrin is very skilled with counterpoint and orchestration, and there was a lot of variety in the music, but the story didn’t feel like it was moving forward and the whole thing was boring. The opera was 95 minutes long but I would estimate it only had about 20 minutes total of music that I found beautiful and/or interesting. I would have left before it was over, if I had been sitting on the aisle.