Gergiev, Mariinsky open BAM residency in mixed fashion with meditative Shchedrin
Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a puzzle. There was so much to admire in the Mariinsky Theater’s production of The Enchanted Wanderer, the first presentation of the company’s two-week BAM residency; and yet somehow, the performance seemed less than the sum of its parts.
Rodion Shchedrin’s two-act 2002 opera is a challenging piece for an audience, to say nothing of the performers. The music is mostly desolate in character, its distant bells and icy strings only occasionally moving into comfortable warmth. The pace is glacial—the music and the narrative are both tightly wound, unravelling slowly. The opera’s subject subject, moreover, the trials of an aged monk, does not necessarily have immediate resonance with a secular audience.
The production, directed by Alexei Stepanyuk, emphasizes the religious aspect of the opera, almost giving it the feel of a devotional work. Two long platforms form a cross on the stage, with a rope suspended in the center. The chorus is seated in rows behind and high above the stage, as though in a choir loft. One of the characters, a gypsy woman named Grusha, is held aloft at her death, the piece’s climax, arms outstretched as though crucified.
It’s a powerful conceit, but Stepanyuk’s emphasis on visual presentation often comes at the expense of storytelling. The general arc of the piece is easy enough—a monk, Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin, recalls dark times in his life, his capture and imprisonment by Tatars, and his encounter with Grusha whom he ultimately kills to save her from despair over her love for the prince that he serves.
Individual episodes, however, are more difficult to puzzle out, their role in the narrative and relative importance left unclear. The scene is presented exclusively in black and white, a colorless palette that contributes to the overall feeling of moroseness. The only exceptions are strategic uses of scarlet red—in floods of light at moments of passion and violence, in the dull velvet jacket of the prince, and once in the costumes of the silent supporting actors. The effect is striking, but it mostly lulls the audience into extended lethargy.
The set barely changes aside from the moving of a table, two chairs, and a divan. Stepanyuk opts instead to line the edges of the platform with wheat stalks which the actors at times step through or even attack, altering the environment while remaining in the same space. It’s a clever device, but also a facile one that seems to have little deeper meaning.
If the production has a tendency towards stagnation, the music provides moments of stunning beauty, seemingly frozen in time. A duet between the prince and Grusha, after he buys her from her gypsy camp, shows the two struggling to be intimate with each other. An immersive sadness pervades the scene, and for a moment we hear two intertwined voices that want nothing more than to sing together.
The opera’s roles are divided among three singers—Oleg Sychov portrays Ivan (replacing Sergei Aleksashkin), Kristina Kapustinskaya presents Grusha, and Andrei Popov plays a number of characters, most notably the prince. These aren’t the sort of mellifluous voices that Met audiences might expect to hear. The three actors had hard surfaces to their sounds, a roughness that suited the character of the piece. Sychov, whose acting failed to enliven his role, had a round tone that occasionally reached a screaming intensity.
The most fluid of the three was Kapustinskaya, though even she had a tartness in her singing, a whiskey-like bite to cut through the sweetness of her tone. One of the evening’s vocal highlights was her song to the sunset, a stunning, whispering reverie that was unfortunately marred by a sudden, widespread, and seemingly interminable outbreak of coughing from the audience.
Popov’s voice was perhaps the least appealing on its surface, a tight, wailing sound that put the listener constantly on edge. To all of his roles he brought a rough intensity, reaching a particularly fearful aspect as a malicious apparition at a tavern, tempting Ivan to spend all of the prince’s money on vodka.
The Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev has been an ensemble of massive power, achieving searing intensity in its New York appearances, particularly when playing Russian repertoire. But Wednesday, through some combination of production and performance, they lacked the unbroken underlying tension that one expects from Gergiev and his musicians. Pieces with this sort of glacial pace can work if the dramatic tension is there, the energy simmering, but when focus droops and goes in and out the way it did Wednesday, so does that of the audience.
Still, The Enchanted Wanderer is exactly the sort of thing BAM should be presenting—intimate productions of unusual, envelope-pushing works, especially ones that are too small for the Met’s stage. That company has to think about 4,000 patrons a night, a pressure felt even more keenly now that they are the only major repertory company in New York. Bravo to BAM for stepping up and filling the experimental opera gap.
The Mariinsky’s residency at BAM continues through January 25, with performances of Swan Lake, Cinderella, and Chopin: Dances for Piano. http://www.bam.org/dance/2015/mariinsky-residency