Vita nuova – An Opera based on La vita nuova by Dante Aligheri to a libretto by the composer & Edward Boyako [world premiere of complete work]
Dante – Mark Padmore
Beatrice – Tatiana Monogarova
Amor – Marianna Tarasova
Secret Woman – Joan Rodgers
Spirits – James Cameron, Llewellyn Cross & Felix Zadek-Ewing
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ian Scott – Lighting
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 18 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In a quite extraordinary coincidence, London has seen concert-premieres of two new Russian operas in just over as many weeks. Valery Gergiev ended the latest Mariinsky residency at the Barbican Hall with Alexander Smelkov’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, unveiled in St Petersburg last July, and now Vladimir Jurowski has conducted Vladimir Martynov’s “Vita nuova”.
Both Smelkov and Martynov found inspiration in centuries-old literary masterpieces – Dostoyevsky for the former and Dante for the latter. Both composers also eschew any sense of musical modernism. But there the similarities end; while Smelkov revelled in Tchaikovsky and Verdi, Martynov is more magpie-like, referencing as wide a set of musical sources, such as ancient Russian Orthodox chant, Wagner, Mahler and even what sounded like a passing reference to the ‘Barcarolle’ in Bernstein’s “Candide”!
This proved too much for some people. In front of a large and mostly warmly appreciative audience (no boos – perhaps concert audiences are better behaved than opera house ones), the work opened organically with performers walking onto the stage ahead of time, chatting to each other as they assembled in their correct places, orchestra, choir, even Jurowski. The performance proper began with the treble spirits in the body of the Hall each intoning “Incipit vita nova” (a new life begins) as they progressed down the steps of the Stalls area to the platform. Mark Padmore as Dante also entered from the auditorium, his bright, instantly recognisable tenor adding incredible lustre to the proceedings.
The music is instantly simple and simply repeated; this is as much as the score is. Cast in three acts, I suppose you could call them ‘Inferno’ (when Dante falls in love with Beatrice in ten scenes, even when tempted by another lady), ‘Purgatory’ (where Dante realises that Beatrice will die) and ‘Paradise’ (Dante’s acceptance of Beatrice’s death and some form of spiritual hope) – foreshadowing Dante’s later masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy”. While I didn’t particularly like the story, I was intrigued about the curious mix it seemed to be, falling between that most spiritual of all operas, Messiaen’s “St François d’Assise” and Kaija Saariaho’s lovelorn medieval troubadour and his distant lady in “L’Amour du loin” (due to receive its UK stage première at English National Opera in July this year).
As Gerard McBurney’s selective programme note on Martynov’s work made clear, he explicitly subtitles the work an “anti opera”. Perhaps that’s why Gergiev and the Mariinsky, who commissioned it, have never performed it.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how it could be successfully staged.In essence this “anti opera” works best as here, a sort of ritual cantata. At the outset Britten came to mind, though not really in the sound of the music. As well as the three trebles (nicely differentiated in timbre) roving around hall, stage and choir stalls, there were the members of EuropaChorAkademie criss-crossing the choir stalls in ever-changing choral formation. Certainly this worked best when the two sets of male voices faced each other, antiphonally from the sides of the choir, where Martynov’s researches into ancient Russian church music seemed to come up with something distinctive. There was no credit for direction in the programme, so perhaps this is specified in the score.
Elsewhere the composer’s soundworld is too eclectic and without its own signature. In Act Two the resemblance to “Tristan und Isolde”, as Tatiana Monogarova’s sumptuous Beatrice repeated “And you too will die” before a duet with Padmore’s Dante answering “Sweet death, come to me”, was clear to hear, as well as a later similarity to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, as Beatrice leaves life for heaven. There was a snatch of Schoenberg in the first Act that suddenly appeared out of the textures, for just a few instruments, and almost as suddenly disappears again.
Thus, whereas we’ve assimilated the tintinnabulation of Pärt, the more avant-garde eclecticism of Schnittke and Gubaidulina or the quiet/loud dichotomy of Kancheli, Martynov’s musical cherry-picking seems too blatant. The elaborate stage and off-stage movements culminate in the choir pairing off into the auditorium and out the doors intoning the repeated refrain “Pray for us”, the members of the orchestra players (brass and strings first) leaving their places and the stage. Then the wind players eventually stop playing and exeunt, leaving the celesta (Catherine Edwards) alone for many reiterations of a phrase, a marimba intoning the rhythmic phrase at a lower register before dying into silence.
Martynov’s interaction is not only with a different type of Christianity, far from his Russian Orthodox heritage, his magpie eclecticism, not just musically, but also in the stage movements – reminding of Schnittke (First Symphony) rather than Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony – and in selections from the Catholic mass, has created a curiosity that was fascinating to witness in this hugely assured performance. Padmore stood out amongst the soloists; Monogarova was rather too an opulent voice as Beatrice, while Marianna Tarasova’s rich mezzo as Amor and Joan Rodgers’s Secret Woman were hardly used (the latter spent most of her brief appearance sitting with her back to the audience).
The text was sung in church Latin, medieval Italian and, for the Russian, in English translation, with surtitles, although it would have been helpful if the three Dante sonnets Martynov sets in praise of Beatrice in Act One could have been printed in the programme, as the musical setting, and line-by-line surtitles disrupted appreciation of the poetry.
I would be intrigued to hear other Martynov pieces, such as “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, “Night in Galicia” and Come In!. While not being convinced by his musical style, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else this night than in the Royal Festival Hall.