Last night, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra in the UK Premier concert performance of "The Enchanted Wanderer." The opera was composed by Rodion Shchedrin in 2002 for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with three performers in multiple roles. While the performance was performed in Russian, the libretto was printed in the program, with extensive notes as to the story and concept of the work.
The music is lovely, moving and while very Russian in tone and color, very modern with extensive use of percussion. At the opening there are bells, indicative of Russia and they start so softly it is almost impossible to tell when the piece begins. This same tonal color ends the piece as the bells fade into the distance leaving the listener with a haunting memory of bells echoing in the silence. Add bells, gongs, chimes, a glockenspiel, a celeste, a harp, a balalaika, gusli, a harpsichord and chorus to a double wind orchestra and you only begin to get an idea of the rich tonal color used throughout. Shchedrin's use of the orchestra never outweighes the primary vocals, and yet provides a constant shifting tapistry to great effect. The chorus becomes precussive during the Tatar Captivity, an amazing use of the choral voices early on in the piece. During the Russian Shepherds, Orchestral Interlude No 1, the sounds of Russian pastoral scenes is evident. In the last interlude, Ships on the Volga, again the sense of Russia is ever present.
Sergei Alexashkin, Kristina Kapustinskaya and Yevgeny Akimov each had lovely voices, although Sergei struggled a bit with the extreme low notes in his role as Ivan. Kristina, whose primary role was that of Gursha the Gypsy, did a wonderful job with the gypsy melody incorporated into the opera. Later, her duet Yevgeny was one of the most beautiful duets of modern opera with a rich blending of the voices, often with tenor taking the upper voice and yet still maintaining both voices in the forefront. However, the first time we hear the gypsy theme, Gursha is working a drinking establishment and so I expected the music to feel fun and flirtatious. It felt more like a lament, and that is perhaps the biggest problem with the piece overall - it is dark pretty much from beginning to end. "The Enchanted Wanderer" is a tragic love story, so certainly I expected there to be dark moments, but, as with the gypsy theme, there seemed to be no respite from the gloom.
Another problem with the performance was the use of multiple characters for each vocalist. Sergei played, Ivan and the Storyteller. Kristina played Grusha and the Storyteller. Yevgeny played the Flogged Monk, Prince, Magnetiser, Old Man in the Woods and the Storyteller. Since this was a concert performance, unless you spent most of the concert with your nose in the program reading along with the opera (there were no supertitles used), you couldn't tell when the performers were one character or another, particularly with Yevgeny, who played so many different roles. The music and the characterization didn't create any differentiation and so, while the music was wonderful, gaining a sense of the story (without understanding Russian) was difficult at best. I had read the synopsis prior to the performance and certainly some moments during the performance didn't need the program notes, but overall I feel this opera would be much better fully staged.
Yet, the music is so wonderful, the singing, use of the voices, orchestration and overall experience was well worth the evening. I wouldn't give the performance 5 stars, but certainly a strong 4. I suspect this opera will be performed much more in the future.