Another Try, Same Dubious Result For Shchedrin Opera

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The gypsy (Kristina Kapustinskaya) meets the monk Ivan (Oleg Sychov) in Rodion Shchedrin’s 'The Enchanted Wanderer.'  (Production photos by Jack Vartoogian)
The gypsy Grushka (Kristina Kapustinskaya) meets the wandering Ivan (Oleg Sychov) in ‘The Enchanted Wanderer.’
(Production photos by Jack Vartoogian)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet are in the United States for a month, with multiple performances of notable Russian works and iconic ballets from the company’s repertoire. Along with engagements in New York, the company will present a ballet residency at the Kennedy Center from Jan. 27 to Feb.1, with the orchestra as pit band, and purely symphonic concerts in Ann Arbor, MI; Troy, NY; Morristown, NJ; Chapel Hill, NC; and Dayton Beach, West Palm Beach, Naples, and Miami, FL.

Artistic director Valery Gergiev began the tour on Jan. 14 with a ten-day residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music leading a single performance of a staged opera, The Enchanted Wanderer.

Grushka (Kristina Kapustinskaya) and the Prince (Andrei Popov).
Grushka (Kristina Kapustinskaya) and the Prince (Andrei Popov).

It must have seemed like a good idea at planning time. Commissioned by an American conductor, Lorin Maazel, the opera had its premiere in 2002 in a concert version with the New York Philharmonic. It was not well received (nor was a London Symphony recording released in 2010), but in 2008 Gergiev mounted a staged production at the Mariinsky, which was the version seen at BAM, with projected English supertitles.

The Enchanted Wanderer’s American connections should have made it a natural choice. But despite the rich tone of mezzo-soprano Kristina Kapustinskaya as the lovely murdered gypsy, the flexible tenor of Andrei Popov (in all the small roles), and acute orchestral  playing, the opera’s undistinguished score, ineffectual plot, and over-stylized staging seemed to turn off  the audience – to judge from shifting, rustling and lukewarm applause – before its 95 minutes ended. This production needed more enchantment and less wandering.

One difficulty might have been that the singer portraying Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin, the reminiscing monk atoning for his life of crime, was a replacement. As Ivan, the big-voiced Ukranian bass Oleg Sychov lumbered about in his white Russian shirt looking confused. Based on one performance, it can’t be determined if that was due to Alexei Stepanyuk’s direction or Sychov not having yet settled into the part.

The reason given for the substitution was that Sergei Aleksashkin, a member of the original cast, was sick, but the change could also be seen as an attempt to placate Ukraine. Did the Ukranian demonstrators with placards shouting outside the entrance and handing out flyers decrying Gergiev’s support of Vladimir Putin know that a singer from Ukraine had been popped into the title role? (It would have been great if Sychov had aced it.)

Ivan (Sychov) is temped to drink by a satanic figure (Popov).
Ivan (Sychov) is temped to drink by a satanic figure (Popov).

No opera can be faulted for having an incredible plot. In this work and in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, both based on novels by 19th-century Russian author Nikolai Leskov, damsels go to the bad and meet a grisly death. Shchedrin filled the score of The Enchanted Wanderer with prominent dissonances, sometimes (as in the duet with Grushka and the Prince) quite lyrically. Some of the music pounds rhythmically, as if composed by Stalin. Even though it comes from a half-century after his death, it certainly smacks of the Soviet apparatchik.

Ivan kills Grushka, his beautiful gypsy love (who marries his employer, the Prince, who deserts her for another), to prevent her from taking revenge on the Prince and his bride. It’s his final crime before he escapes to monkhood. Of course, in real life, after whipping a monk to death, throwing away his employer’s money on drink and women, and pushing his ex-girlfriend into a river, he wouldn’t last a minute.

The stage was filled with wheat, through which dancers — as monks, tatars, courtiers, and bar denizens — moved slowly in and out, while sometimes delicately placing and removing small bits of furniture to suggest a scene. The chorus, costumed in simple robes and, for the women, head coverings, sat upstage, singing several roles and, when not singing, following along with the score. (A chorus is a chorus is a chorus.)

It is worth noting that in this performance, the orchestra and conductor were in the pit, largely unseen, and that will be the case with the ballet productions of Cinderella, Swan Lake, and Chopiniana performed throughout the tour. The productions will show what a precise pit orchestra can do to support singers and dancers. The Mariinsky Orchestra and Gergiev are off to an excellent start — at least in that department.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.

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