Like most of his operas, Rodion Shchedrin’s Boyarina Morozova has a Russian link, but what a difference from his 1994 Lolita, based on Nabokov’s novel.
His new opera addresses the Russian church schism of the 17th century, material a 19th- century Russian composer might have fancied. Indeed, Feodosiya Morozova, the aristocratic widow of a boyar, was a kind of real- life embodiment of Marfa (Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina), although less enigmatic and more single-mindedly devoted to the old religious ways.
Anyone who knows Vasily Surikov’s painting of a defiant Feodosiya dispatched to a convent on a sled, her hand proudly raised to display the two fingers with which Old Believers crossed themselves, will recognise a potential operatic heroine.
But Shchedrin’s Feodosiya is less demonstrative, conveying an inner peace as she heads towards martyrdom.
In fact, Shchedrin has eschewed normal operatic trappings, evoking a churchly ambience by relying on chorus rather than instruments, in imitation of the Orthodox Church’s prohibition on the latter, although he does allow himself a trumpet and two percussionists.
With the chorus often supplying wordless support for the soloists, the musical texture rarely seemed too thin.
And the mix of chant- like tradition and finely gauged novel sonorities catches the spirituality of the subject while leaving room for an appalled reaction to the workings of fanaticism.
Shchedrin has said he would like to see a staged version of the hour- long Boyarina Morozova, but the concert format of the world premiere – the first offering of this year’s Moscow Autumn contemporary music festival – seemed right for its oratorio-like properties.
In Feodosiya’s music, Larisa Kostyuk’s handsome mezzo blended tellingly with the clear, disembodied tones of Veronika Dzhioeva, as the Princess Urusova, whose loyalty to her sister Feodosiya results in a second martyrdom.
The arch-priest Avvakum, whom Feodosyia reveres, can do little to help other than purveying melodically arresting laments, which Andrew Goodwin sang with fine lyricism. Mikhail Davydov might have been a stronger presence as Tsar Alexei, whose harsh treatment of Feodosiya seems to stem as much from her challenge to royal authority as from the tenacity with which she maintains her beliefs.
Boris Teblin drew a virtuosic performance from the Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory.
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