Rodion Shchedrin, who turns 80 next year, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre. Ballet scores by the composer, once prominent in Soviet circles, figure prominently in summer tours to New York and London. Back home, a work of greater artistic ambition has emerged to intrigue audiences, his opera Dead Souls, seen in the first Russian production since its 1977 premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Based on Nicolai Gogol’s epochal work, regarded as the progenitor of the Russian novel, Dead Souls tells of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov who, like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, travels to cities to charm money out of their inhabitants. His strategy is to buy dead serfs still on the tax rolls and use them as loan collateral. The core of the opera is his negotiations with a succession of landowners, who prove to be increasingly eccentric as the opera progresses.
Though not as absurdist as Shostakovich’s Gogol-based The Nose or as unrelentingly brilliant musically, Dead Souls comes across as a fascinating and quirky exploration of the Russian character, especially given the glosses of Vasily Barkhatov’s imaginative production, which draws on images from the recent past. Chichikov first encounters the amiable couple of Manilov and his wife, here portrayed as beekeepers (an activity dear to Moscow’s former mayor Yuri Luzhkov). Then come, among others, Korobochka, who employs illegal labourers at sewing machines, and Sobakevich, a bureaucrat from the Brezhnev era with cabinets akin to repositories for cadavers in a morgue. Zinovy Margolin’s arresting set depicts two huge wheels (symbolic of Chichikov’s travels) with revolving panels between them for projections of rural scenes.
Shchedrin’s score, which is more modernistic than you might expect, includes shimmering folk-like choral music between scenes and brilliant ensembles that often hark back to Italian opera buffa. But solo music is often sparsely accompanied and melodically drab (Russian critics saw allusions to Mussorgsky’s realism) and inspiration sometimes sags.
Still, with nearly 40 roles, Dead Souls shows the Mariinsky, with Gergiev exerting firm control in the pit, in top ensemble form. Baritone Sergei Romanov cuts a slippery figure as Chichikov, bass Sergei Aleksashkin booms mightily as Sobakevich, tenor Sergei Semishkur as Nozdryov scores in casting doubt on Chichikov, and Elena Sommer is striking in the enigmatic trouser role of Plyushkin, here a 1990s tramp.