The Brothers Karamazov – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Yuri Dimitrin after Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel
Feodor Pavlovich – Vassily Gorshkov
Dmitry (Mitya) – Avgust Amonov
Ivan (Vanya) – Alexey Markov
Alexey (Alyosha) – Vladislav Sulimsky
Smerdyakov – Alexander Timchenko
Zosima – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Grand Inquisitor – Alexander Morozov
Katerina Ivanova – Elena Nebera
Grushenka – Kristina Kapustinskaya
Khoklakova – Olga Trifonova
Mussyalovich – Yevgeny Ulanov
Vrublevsky – Sergey Romanov
Maria Kondratievna – Tatiana Krovtsova
Grigory – Alexander Gerasimov
Chairman of the Court – Grigory Karasev
Priest – Viktor Antipenko
Old Man – Oleg Mitsura
Head of Court – Yuri Andrushko
Mother – Nadezhda Khadzheva
Trebles of Eltham College
Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Mariinsky Theatre/Gergiev – 3 … Alexander Smelkov’s The Brothers Karamazov
Sunday, February 01, 2009 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Nicholson
The Mariinsky Residency is yet another triumph for the management of the Barbican Centre, International co-operation could hardly be more fruitful in the operatic field than allowing London audiences to hear three operas which had their premières at the company’s home theatre, one of which is unlikely to be staged professionally in this country (“The Demon”, although it was mounted at Wexford) and another which premièred only last July.
The last description applies to Alexander Smelkov’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, though you would never guess it, so ‘traditional’ and non-progressive is its idiom. The opera, played to an almost capacity audience on a snowy evening, received a welcome to equal that of its stage premiere in St Petersburg. I detected a sense of relief that this new work is accessible and exploits the methods of vocal and instrumental resource to illuminate the subject and which proved their worth in the heyday of opera.
The distribution of voices is what one would expect from an opera of the second half of the nineteenth-century: there are substantial parts for heroic tenor (Mitya), dramatic baritone (Ivan), spinto soprano (Katerina Ivanova), lyric mezzo (Grushenka) and even coloratura soprano (Khoklakova). More unusual castings include a character tenor in the leading role of Feodor Pavlovich and two subsidiary tenors (Smerdyakov and the Devil). Vassily Gorshkov conveyed the foppish, selfish degeneracy of Feodor by vocal means alone. In the opening scene outside the monastery, he told his funny story in what resembled a number from a comic opera with a chirpy accompaniment (and without needing to prance around the platform).
The animosity between him and eldest son Mitya is not long in being established. Nevertheless, the character of Mitya is not that of a one-dimensional hedonist. In his narration to his other acknowledged brother Alyosha he is tormented by guilt at his betrayal of his fiancée Katerina Ivanova and his own greed, while at the same time violently inflamed by his father’s rivalry. Later, in his aria, Avgust Amonov as Mitya, more bewildered than indignant, crowned an admirable performance with a pianissimo high C. In the following scene it was back to manic violence as he beat his father in sexual jealousy. Later he revealed a controlled mezza-voce in his Prayer and acquired unexpected sympathy before his trial. In the love duet with Elena Nebera he showed off his top register in full voice as both singers threw away all restraint.
The rather dark soprano of Elena Nebera, with its backward placing, though heard at its best in this duet, was not ideal casting. There was insufficient difference in sound between her and Kristina Kapustinskaya as Grushenka. However, the performers were certainly not content to create cardboard figures. They brought out the ambiguities in these two main female characters: Grushenka, now calculating and manipulative in feigning affection for Katerina, now giving way to passion for Mitya, Katerina herself, her altruism stretched to the limit and finally denouncing him.
Alexey Markov enhanced his reputation as a baritone in the line from Mazurok through Leiferkus and Hvorostovsky. His Ivan took some time to come into focus as a characterisation but was exerting his full malevolent power by the time of the scenes with Alyosha and Smerdyakov in the second Act. Vladislav Sulimsky, with a perceptibly lighter baritone as Alyosha, emphasised the pathos of the character throughout.
The two roles for high character tenors are Smerdyakov, the ‘fourth son’ and the Devil. Alexander Timchenko as Smerdyakov displayed more than one persona: deceptively unctuous on his first appearance, vulnerable in his scene with Ivan in the second Act and ultimately free to be manipulated by the Devil. The latter’s confrontation with Ivan in the following scene is one of the most original pieces of invention in the work. Smelkov conveys the irritating effect on Ivan of his own alter ego. Andrey Popov’s slim figure and caustic high tenor were ideal for the part, while the simulated mandolin sounds and virtuoso music for solo trumpet with which he torments Ivan create an individual soundworld. The scene also stands powerfully on its own and is perhaps even superior to the trial-scene that follows.
The concert format dispensed with the need for potentially disruptive scene changes. The disparate settings followed each other in brisk sequence, so that the two quite long Acts never lost impetus, but the lack of scenery, costumes and props, as well as the general avoidance of close physical contact, did obscure the social aspect of the interaction between characters. One would have liked more intervention through lighting to establish mood. Conversely Smelkov’s command of the art of transition was well illustrated on several occasions, for example by the progression between the Grand Inquisitor’s appearance and Mitya’s Prayer which follows.
The strength of the company was discernible in Olga Trifonova’s smooth scales and gleaming staccatos in the minor role of Khoklakova. Alexander Morozov thundered mightily as the Grand Inquisitor but his adversary The Wanderer was missing. According to the synopsis of the opera, he should twice be confronted by the character of The Wanderer in a prison setting (Scenes 16 and 25). In the latter a fair amount of stage-business is indicated. None of this was seen in this performance and the Inquisitor was left talking to himself. Presumably this is a mute role and The Wanderer is a ghostly, non-corporeal figure, seen in the theatre as a projection.
The Mariinsky forces were startlingly accomplished: weight of tone from the brass section, impeccable ensemble in lyrical music from the strings, the always crisp response from the percussion to the crucial dramatic role it is called upon to play, and a chorus gifted with many fine individual voices. The boys of Eltham College were also reliable contributors when called upon to deliver their ethereal layer of sound. Valery Gergiev conducted with total certainty but thankfully without flamboyance, concealing all the hard work that occurred in rehearsal, which is as it should be.
Smelkov is clearly a man of the theatre. His dramaturgy is skilful enough to resemble that of Puccini. Some of the entrances are extremely powerful, such as the surprise arrival of the police at precisely the moment that Grushenka’s and Mitya’s future seems confirmed. As far as musical style is concerned, leitmotifs are used, powerfully in the case of the melody prominently referred to on the brass in Alyosha’s Prayer. Individual instrumental effects are tailored to characters: one thinks particularly of the ironic bassoon accompaniment to the avaricious Feodor’s monologue. Arguably the most musically memorable number is the octet over a lower-string pedal when the principals appear to Alyosha in a dream to arouse his conscience.
There are faults in the work. Much of the vocal music seems generic: one recalls the main solo items and the love-duet in terms of general mood rather than memorable tunes. The condensation of the novel into an opera libretto has meant the elimination of some important episodes such as that involving the schoolboys Kolya and Ilyusha. The ideological element is present in the opera but seriously reduced in scale.
The opera is undoubtedly derivative, both dramatically and musically. Tchaikovsky is an obvious influence in the handling of dance and gambling scenes but also in musical procedures: the lyrical wind melody over pizzicato strings for Grushenka’s aria in Scene 10 is reminiscent of “Eugene Onegin”. Mussorgsky‘s example is apparent in the big pageant scene that ends Act One and Prokofiev and Shostakovich are not far away. I have read that the opening imitates the upward-surging first bars of Brahms’s C minor Symphony. In fact, few of the legacies of earlier music are as specific as that (save for the quotation from Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony) but their appearance has made the opera a target for disparagement.
The opera has already attracted a condescending response. In fact it is perhaps best perceived as a belated resumption of the Russian tradition of grand opera, this much implied by programming it as the final leg of a trio of operas premiered in St Petersburg. The fact that there is well over a century between the last two of them draws attention to their stylistic continuity and hints that this might be a way forward for opera as a whole.