Forbidden longings: two opera premieres at Mariinsky Theatre

Two productions, both under musical direction of Valery Gergiev, could be seen at Mariinsky Theatre on consecutive days in February 2020: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita. Both are new productions for Mariinsky Theatre: Anna Matison’s original staging of Debussy’s masterpiece opened in October 2019 and is still in its extended premiere season, while Slava Daubnerova’s production is a transferral from National Theatre in Prague (2019) with the same Russian soloists. Both operas explore erotic and love longings that lead to disasters, but the material is radically different, first being a tragedy of mythological, symbolical kind, the second exploring the individual’s strive into unknown lands of erotic wishes that are banned by society and the ensuing guilt. The differences between probably also mark the huge watershed that lies between the 19th century when fairytales, romanticism and deep connection between human souls was still possible and the following centuries of self-centered individualism and self-probing encumbered by subdued and unexpectedly exploding libidos. It is striking how different is also the general after-taste that the operas leave behind: the catarthic, freshening and empowering tears after Debussy, and tension, shock, exhaustion and pain after Shchedrin’s new opera. However, both lead the audiences to better understanding of the extremes to where human soul and body can go, with these borderlines of existence being suddenly shed light upon.

I. Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy (conductor: Valery Gergiev, director Anna Matison, premiere on 24 October 2019 and through the 2019/2020 season)

Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the only opera of the French composer, and it received its premiere in 1902 at Opera Comique in Paris, conducted by André Messager and is based on the play of Belgain playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. The story line seems to resemble that of doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, with the love triangle involving the husband (older brother) and final deaths of the two lovers. Composer saw in May 1893, abandoned his another project and set on the path of writing music for it, with full understanding that it is not an exotic rendering of a Middle ages love and jealosy story, but something introducing new aesthetics into the world of theatre and – possibly – music. This material allowed Debussy to explore formely unknown possibilities in orchestral and operatic writing, breaking away from Wagnerian tradition that influenced him a decade earlier. Pelléas et Mélisande still remains an important milestone in the opera history because of the new way human speech and thought is rendered in its music, the subtle, almost eery orchestral writing, and the links between sounds and the viewer’s own imagination that the opera allows to build.

Anna Matison, whose work encompasses direction, costume and set design (the latter being a collaborative work with Marcel Kalmagambetov), has sensed the presence of mysterious levity in this opera incredibly well. Together with her team that also included light designer Alexander Sivaev, choreographer Sergey Zemlyansky and video graphics designer Alexander Kravchenko, she masterfully succeeds in transforming the Mariinsky Concert Hall into a transcendent place that doesn’t belong to any time or place where the unknown laws of existence have their unavoidable impact on fragile human lives. Paradoxically it is easier to create this intimate globe of nothingness in the Concert Hall that is surrounded by viewers on the side and in the choir than at the main Mariinsky stage. A huge frame of an old ship is hanging above the stage, and when Golaud arrives with his new wife, the frame slowly finds its way to the ground and remains till the end, with its narrow stem striking high towards the sky – almost like a human soul rooted to earth.

This ship frame is anchored by little globes emmeshed in fishing nets – they are so beautiful that it begins to look like a little castle itself, an entity of mystery, memory, past and future. In fact, these same little globes that look like game balls are the ones that will unite Pelléas and Mélisande during the opera: they throw it to each other like children when they meet, they will have it at their walks and one of those will magically burst flowers when they confess their love.

Matison uses the ship multifunctionally, as Golaud’s bed opens up as part of its stucture. The well where the wedding ring will disappear is on the left, the fountain of water strikes occasionally from the ship’s figurehead representing a maid allowing a pigeon to fly. The dining table on the right with high-backed chairs surrounding it is another piece of opera’s decoration. While always being shaded in semi-darkeness, a relatively small Concert Hall stage still looks magnificently spatious and mysterious, with the sea, forests, beach and underground passage easily imaginable. A group of dancers/actors helps to create the opera’s unique atmosphere – they are dressed as Greek Moirai, with their mouths being covered by red ribbons and their heads and bodies engulfed in white clothes. Appearing with a big piece of material spread between them, they introduce the symbolic meaning into a particular scene (red for jealousy and fear, blue for fate or love perhaps), while in the end they reflect Golaud’s guilt with grins through a huge mirror they hold, while also marking the pace of death with beats of forks over the table.

Anna Matison introduces a special reading to existence of mysterious Mélisande (Aigul Khismatullina) by a very interesting decision: the heroine appears with a knife and a cut braid in her hand, and drops a ring she holds into the well. In the end, when her long braid again being cut off by Golaud, she wakes up, takes his knife and her braid, and murmurs something indicating she doesn’t know where she is, ready to drop the ring that Golaud put back on her finger, into a well again. She is das ewig weibliche, the eternal woman and source of love dying and resurrecting without reason – an interesting interpretation by the opera director, who also empowers Mélisande with deliberate choices – she doesn’t lose Golaud’s ring in the second act, but forcefully abandons it, and she cares for Golaud out of obedience, while opening up to Arkel. Golaud (Andrey Serov) is here a deeply-tormented, multi-dimensional character who passionately loves his wife and goes through the hell of jealousy of guilt followed by attempts at forgiveness and tenderness towards his son, brother and wife. Ynold in the production is interested by a wonderful boy Alexander Palekhov who conveys a child’s naiveness mixed with adult sensitivity. When he first appears, he draws a line of fuming irons along, imagining they are his ship armada, which again brings to mind the sympol of this production – the existence of weights that keep human souls to the ground, while the liberty of sky (and death) is so near. Pelléas (Gamid Abdulov) is probably the least mysterious of all here – a youth suddenly getting too serious in his explorations. The king Arkel (Oleg Sychev) is very eloquent in his singing, while always physically tied down to the chair. He suddenly loses his blindfold towards the end, and, while holding a new-born baby in his hands, allows us to glimpse a tangible tie between life and death in this opera that is indeed an endeavous to explore things not-seen and unimaginable. This production powerfully reawakens our imaginations, and the tragedy of its characters’ death almost feels like a relief, a resolution, as we, together with them, can for a brief moment enter the void hovering above us, leaving the weights of little globes anchoring us to life, behind.

II. Lolita by Rodion Shchedrin (conductor – Valery Gergiev, director – Slava Daubnerova) Premiere at Mariinsky Theatre – 13 February 2020.

Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Lolita is obviously very different from Debussy’s in subject and music substance, although forbidden longings and tragic denouement are also present here. Shchedrin began working on the opera in the early 1990s when he was inspired by Mstislav Rostropovich to do so – and the opera received its premiere in Stockholm in 1994. It took it more than 25 years to reach the stage of Mariinsky Theatre (where almost all operas of the composer have been presented in recent years), but in February 2020 the audiences could finally see production – in transferral from National Theatre of Prague (2019) with the same soloists. Shchedrin used Nabokov’s Russian text for his own libretto, while subtitles interestingly are pasted copies from its English versions that occasionally causes discrepancies. Musically the opera is very eclectic. It pays homage to Wagner, adopting a system of leitmotifs, while although, similarly to Janaček, through slowing down the tempi and at first sounding partly monotonous, tries to render patterns of human speech in music. It also, perhaps like Varèse, introduces renditions of street sounds in orchestral writing. Ideologically, Shchedrin weers away from Nabokov’s refusal to moralize and follows Russian tradition represented Dostoevsky where every criminal story should help the reader’s growth by distinguishing between right or wrong. In this Lolita we see the character Humbert Humbert as a new Raskolnikov who is allowed to speak before his judges while living through the tormented hell of his memories, but in the end, similarly to Goethe’s Faust, seeing a glimpse of salvation in a children’s chorus singing an ode to Mother Mary. And indeed, this constant turbulent oscillation between devil and angels, sombre and humane sides of the soul are at the core of Schedrin’s operatic creation, and he invites us to follow this path together.

The set design (Boris Kudlichka) is minimalistic, influenced by avant-garde European tendencies, but also by the subject matter of the opera. The Mariinsky stage allows to have many objects placed on it at once, but all of them are ‘disembodied’, don’t belong or sometimes are literally only half of the thing they are supposed to represent: it increases the feeling of void we have from the very start. Shchedrin rounds the opera in the ‘guilt’ circle by starting it with a scene where Humbert is shooting his rival, the playwright Quilty, while the latter is having a bath. The main character is feeling only responsible for Lolita’s seduction, but not for this crime (such double standards are again similar to those of Raskolnikov). In this opera Humbert is always in some kind of dialogue with a chorus of men, who are his judges, but probably no longer on Earth, but rather in Heaven, and appear as his dark angels of conscience everytime he speaks about his past.

Shchedrin makes this a monologue opera, despite presence of multiple characters, as everything is perceived through Humbert’s eyes. That is why the musical material that might seem monotonous in the beginning, widens and gains variations further on, as we discover ghosts hidden in the protagonist’s memory. Everyone and everything here is the shadow of Humbert’s recollections. and that explains halved carcasses of cars, a similar motel for every place the couple stays at and a very simplistic (almost a caricature) interior of Charlotte’s house that can fold and disappear like a house of cards. The further the opera develops, the barer the set gets, leaving us with a representation of a car (cabin only) and the same motel with the same sign (The Enchanted Hunters) for all further proceedings, including the deja-vu murder of Quilty in his bath. Then the stage bares again, with every object disappearing, apart from the bench where Lolita and Humbert meet for the last time, and the chorus of girls (all aged similarly to Lolita) begings to surround Humbert,– not judging him, but rather praying to the Godmother for him. This chorus is accompanied by a set of videos of modern teenagers with cheerful or sad, mischievous or mysterious glances – all having lives and futures of their own – that passage of time that we call life that Lolita was deprived of.

But somehow this very moment gives a raison-d-etre to the whole opera, becomes its redemption, purification, and clearly bears its moral message intended by Shchedrin. It is an opera that is difficult to watch despite the minimum presence of openly sexual or violent scenes. Its dramatism lies in its constant inner intensity that, when bursts open, is even more frustrating and too physical to follow. All options of excitable reading that the reader of Nabokov might secretly experience are swiped clean by Shchedrin, as we see Humbert (Pyotr Sokolov) having an erection when Lolita (Pelageya Kurennaya) rhythmically sings Car-men, Car-men with him while naively bouncing her leg on his groin. This is followed by moments in a motel cabin that reveal the horrific violence of trespassing the human dimension that desire drives Humbert to. We see a tired and disheveled Lolita who wants to sleep or have a drink filmed by Humbert on a camera. Him filming her earlier in a bathroom reveals his voyeristic desire and it is exactly these videos (not letters) that are found by Charlotte before her death. A moment later he jumps violently on her with lights dimming, thus rossing the divide between human and animalistic once and for all. It is impressive to see how both Shchedrin through his music and the director (Slava Daubnerova) manage to show the horror of this trespassing without excessive naturalism. Neverthelss. with its moral message constantly hovering over cruel scenes, this opera is a continuous strain on viwers, as though we are forced to commit the crime and suffer together with Humbert. The effect is indeed quite profound.

Pyotr Sokolov and Pelageya Kurennaya both are outstanding in their respective roles, with Sokolov showing the contrast between outward humility and relative youth of his character (we tend to forget that Humbert is in his 30s) and the hell that torments him inside, with violent streaks changing the singer, making both his vocal performance and behaviour on stage intense, determinstic, thought-through. Sokolov also acts very powerfully in the scenes where he is in dialogue with the chorus of his conscience, aptly switching from between ‘action’ and ‘recollection’ modes. He is contrasted by devilish Claire Quilty sung by a Chech tenor Aleš Briscein and reminding us of Britten’s Death in Venice (based on Thomas Mann’s tale of desire) where the protagonist was also haunted by figures reprsenting the darker side of his conscience. Pelageya Kurennaya who has a firm presence in Mariinsky’s repertoire is the discovery of the evening, as she manages both to show the gradual decline of a girl into a fallen woman who is striving to retain her teenagehood till the very end. Kurennaya has a wonderful, deep mezzo-soprano that goes in stark contrast with her slight and short built and teenager curls (a wig for the role). Thus the woman in her is powerfully revealed through her voice, while her boyish movements and childish moodiness cover the sufferings of the incongruity of her stuation till the very end when in her white dress and a bump she finally meets with the woman in herself she was forced to become. Darya Rositskaya does a very good attempt at farcical characterization in singing the mother Charlotta, a frustrated middle-aged woman. One could suppose that it was quite a challenge for Valery Gergiev to conduct this opera, but he is not a newcomer as far as Rodion Shchedrin is concerned as the maestro has been in the ochestra pit for all premieres of the composer at the Mariinsky – and thus he lives through the torment that music powerfully reflects and powerfully takes the musicians and singers with him.