The Mariinsky in Shchedrin’s Dead Souls

Late 20th century Russian opera has not been much noticed in the West. While striking pieces by Schnittke and Weinberg have made an impact, these can in no sense be regarded as emanating from the Soviet Russian mainstream. The Grove entry on “Russia” points the way to several prominent compositions from the period and one of these Dead Souls by Rodion Shchedrin, is available in a EuroArts video, a 2012 performance at St Peterburg’s Mariinsky Theatre.

The opera, dating from 1977, is based on Gogol’s classic and very Russian picaresque mid-19th century tale of an enterprising individual Chichikov who seeks to make considerable financial gains from purchasing the “dead souls” of serfs. This because, under the poll tax system prevailing at the time, liabilities were assessed by reference to the number of a landowner’s registered serfs. Like the novel, the opera follows Chichikov’s peripatetic encounters with a variety of landowners, contrasting their bourgeois lives with the plight of the serfs.

The libretto, written by the composer, is colourful and sharp and if it slides frequently into Dickensian caricature it thereby remains faithful to Gogol’s satirical original. Such an approach lends itself to expressionist musical representation and, Shchedrin produces fascinating pointed, sometimes eccentric, sound portraits of each of the main characters. At the same time, I have to admit that by the end of the performance I had begun to tire of his compositional idiom which relies too much on unusual intervals and vocal whooping.

The opera requires around thirty solo singers, thus making it suitable only for companies with a large, quality ensemble. What better example of this than the Mariinsky?  Indeed, the splendour of the voices and the degree of dramatic involvement in even the smallest roles resulted in much to admire. As Chichikov, Sergei Romanov had a marathon undertaking, hardly ever leaving the stage, but forcefully, with his strong rounded baritone, he  projected throughout his callous, selfish ambitions. Among the landowners, Sergei Aleksashkin impressed with his massive bass voice and his awesome stage presence, as did soprano Svetlana Volkova relishing the part of the elderly male Plyushkin. Valery Gergiev in the pit predictably extracted the maximum dramatic tensions from the score.

Yet what converted the performance from an interesting into a spectacular introduction to an unfamiliar work was the theatrical, rather than musical,` dimension. Far too often, in my experience, productions at the major Russian opera houses have been lavish and boringly conservative, distancing themselves from the fertile, innovative approach to characterisation and stylised movement, pioneered by Meyerhold and others in pre-Stalinist Russian theatre. Here at last was a major production which drew fully on that tradition. Director Vasily Barkhatov and set designer Zinovy Margolin made full use of the capacious Mariinsky stage to promote images  symbolising  contrasting aspects of the Tsarist society: a peasant funeral silhouetted at the rear; a ballerina and rich nobility in dazzling white cohorting in a ballroom; garish vulgar costumes (designer Maria Danilova) for bourgeois matrons obsessed with fashion, as well as with marrying off their daughters; a monster filing cabinet topped by Greek statuettes representing pretentious capitalist commerce; and, most powerful of all, two enormous wheels (of social progress?) framing the action and beginning to move very slowly only at the end. An almost seamless shifting between scenes and a synthesising review of the key images before the final curtain lent coherence to the proceedings and was aesthetically pleasing.

Clearly a performance showing the Mariinsky at its very best.