Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer – New York Philharmonic/Maazel

The Enchanted Wanderer – Opera for the Concert Stage for Three Solo Voices, Chorus and Orchestra [New York Philharmonic Commission: World Premiere]

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Evgeny Akimov (tenor)
Ain Anger (bass)

New York Choral Artists

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 19 December, 2002
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Rodion Shchedrin’s New York Philharmonic commission, The Enchanted Wanderer, grew out of both practical and artistic considerations. When the Philharmonic’s 2002-2003 schedule was being drawn up, the orchestra was programmed to perform Handel’s Messiah at New York City’s Riverside Church on December 18-21, a decision which left Avery Fisher Hall and more than half the orchestra – mainly brass, winds, and percussion – free. The Philharmonic decided to commission a work that would make use of these otherwise unoccupied resources.

To produce the resulting work, Shchedrin once again tapped into the folklore and literary traditions of his Russian homeland. Like The Sealed Angel – a Russian liturgy for which Shchedrin received the Russian State Prize in 1992 – The Enchanted Wanderer is based on a 19th-century story by Nikolai Leskov. The composer describes the newer piece as an “opera for the concert stage,” but, with its heavy dependence on narration, The Enchanted Wanderer is more akin to an oratorio than an opera. One is hard-pressed to imagine it being performed in anything but concert format.

Based on the well-known novella of the same name, the work tells the story of Ivan Severyanovich Flygin, a wandering adventurer-turned-monk who, in the course of his nomadic life, is a servant, a coachman, a horse trader, an actor, a soldier, and a prisoner of the Tartars. While in the service of a prince, he falls passionately, but platonically, in love with the gypsy Grusha, whom he loses to the prince and subsequently kills at her own request. Finally, led by the soul of Grusha to the monastery on the Island of Valaam, he takes monastic vows to atone for his sins.

Shchedrin’s work is imaginatively scored for a wide array of instruments. Along with the usual contingent of winds and brasses, the score calls for a greatly expanded percussion section, and an enormous variety of more unusual instruments, such as foghorns, balalaika, gusli (a Russian harp), and even a boned saw. The piece begins with the ringing of church bells and the mostly contemplative, lyrical score intersperses ancient Russian shepherd tunes with melodies reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as spikier elements evoking storms, battles, or the galloping of hooves. A particularly effective moment is “Drunken Night”, an orchestral interlude in which slurping tubas join with winds and strings to depict the night in which a wildly intoxicated Ivan first encounters the Gypsy Grusha.

The work as performed by the New York Philharmonic is sung in Russian with English surtitles projected over the stage. However, the story is hard to follow, even with surtitles. Much of the confusion is caused by requiring the three soloists to function as both storytellers and characters. Splitting the storytelling among three narrators would be confusing enough, but Shchedrin confounds the problem by having the tenor sing the roles of four different characters. At various points in the story, he is the Flogged Monk, the Prince, the Magnetizer, or the Old Man whom Grusha meets in the forest. Further confusion is caused by having the soloists – as characters act out their experiences at one moment and then – as narrators – retell them in the next. The only way to be sure which mask a particular singer is wearing is to look at the printed libretto which, unlike the surtitles, labels the lines of dialogue (or narration, as the case may be) with the names of the characters (or soloists) who sing them.

Fortunately, the musical performance was clearer than the libretto. Lorin Maazel – to whom Shchedrin dedicated this work – elicited a performance of great skill and warmth from both the Philharmonic and the New York Choral Artists. The soloists were all excellent. Finnish mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi used her hauntingly rich voice to sing with great beauty throughout the performance and was especially effective in Grusha’s longer solo outpourings. Estonian Ain Anger, making his United States debut, used his deep bass to give a thrilling performance in the role of Ivan. Russian tenor Evgeny Akimov brought a light, agreeable tenor to the role of the Prince and the roster of other characters.

  • This world premiere on December 19 was followed by performances on December 20 and 21
  • New York Philharmonic

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