Valery Gergiev (l) and Rodion Shchedrin (r) reviewing a score at the Mariinsky Concert Hall.
Rodion Shchedrin, one of the most acclaimed Russian composers, is obviously winning the heart of Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater.
The Second New Horizons festival opened Thursday with a performance by the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra of the second act of Shchedrin’s opera “Lolita” (as well as Olivier Messiaen’s “L’Ascention” and Pierre Boulez’s “Four Notations”) conducted by Gergiev.
For Shchedrin, the plot of “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 tragicomic novel, is “a wonderful thriller begging to be transformed into an opera.”
“Some years ago I was approached by French managers and asked to compose an opera set to a Russian novel for the then newly inaugurated Opera Bastille,” Shchedrin recalls. “[The late cellist] Mstislav Rostropovich was invited to be the musical director of the production. This Nabokov novel has tangible allusions with the story lines of ‘Carmen’.”
Shchedrin’s “Carmen-Suite” is arguably Shchedrin’s greatest success and most frequently performed work, so he was keen to develop similar themes.
The composer perceives Nabokov’s novel, in which a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, connives to kidnap and sexually abuse Lolita, a 12-year-old girl, as a story of stolen beauty.
“It feels like a nostalgia for beauty; it is a symbol, really,” Shchedrin said. “For me personally, Lolita as a character is less of a human being but rather an archetype, a symbol of beauty but a fleeting beauty.”
While no specific plans to produce a full stage rendition of “Lolita” have yet been voiced, Gergiev announced that other works by Shchedrin are on their way into the Mariinsky’s repertoire.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Gergiev sounded enthusiastic when unveiling plans to rehearse Shchedrin’s opera “Dead Souls” and stage the composer’s ballet “The Little Humpbacked Horse.”
The ballet looks set to premiere during the current season and be choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, formerly the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and now with the New York City Ballet. Gergiev said he has already secured an agreement with Yury Temirkanov, the artistic director of Shostakovich Philharmonic, to conduct “Dead Souls.”
Gergiev devotes special attention to contemporary music and is especially interested in the works of living composers. His recent presentations to St. Petersburg audiences have included, in addition to Shchedrin’s opera, Thomas Ades’ “Powder Her Face” and a series of symphonic pieces and concertos by Henri Dutilleux.
Shchedrin’s musical vision of the famed Russian soul received its first stage incarnation with the premiere of “The Enchanted Wanderer” at the Mariinsky Theater Concert Hall during the Stars of the White Nights Festival in July 2008.
“The success of ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’ was overwhelming,” Gergiev said. “We are thrilled to continue working with Rodion Shchedrin, and there are many plans, indeed. With the performance of the second act of ‘Lolita’ we send a clear signal that there is more to come on the Mariinsky stage from Shchedrin.”
Rooted in Russian spiritual music, “The Enchanted Wanderer” was clearly inspired by the traditional choral chants and bell-ringing of the Russian Orthodox Church, gypsy romances and folk tunes, and has a distinctly Russian character. The opera rings with Russian spirituality, attuned by avant garde minimalism.
Commissioned by Lorin Maazel for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and originally premiered in 2002, “The Enchanted Wanderer” saw its Russian premiere, albeit in concert version, under the baton of Gergiev during the Stars of the White Nights Festival in 2007.
Pierced with poignant intensity, the opera is beautifully transparent and is reminiscent in style to prayer and confession. Based on Nikolai Leskov’s eponymous novel, “The Enchanted Wanderer” tells the life story of an aged serf-turned-novice in a monastery in Valaam.
Maazel’s wish was for Shchedrin to create an opera reflecting the Russian national character and exploring the depths of the so-called Russian soul.
“If the ‘Russian soul’ genuinely exists, then nobody better than Nikolai Leskov could respond to this fundamental issue,” Shchedrin said in an interview after the premiere.
The composer compared his work with Bach’s Passions in the sense that the main characters in “The Enchanted Wanderer,” as in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, appear both as storytellers and dramatic characters as they perform.
“The music of the most talented living composers has become a priority for the troupe, and with the new venue now available to us, the Mariinsky Concert Hall, we have received the much-needed space for experiments, without having to compromise our signature shows that are already known and loved by the audiences,” Gergiev said.