Many in New York were miffed when the New York Philharmonic commissioned Rodion Shchedrin for an important new work in 2002, deeming the veteran Russian composer, once a pillar of the Soviet musical establishment, too conservative. Yet the Philharmonic’s conductor, Lorin Maazel, counts The Enchanted Wanderer, “an opera for the concert stage”, as a significant achievement of his tenure and praised Shchedrin for writing “music that is music, and not simply a concatenation of sounds that appeal to the eye of fellow note-designers”.

Heard in its Russian premiere by the orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre under Valery Gergiev, as part of the Stars of the White Nights Festival, The Enchanted Wanderer did indeed prove to have such timed-honoured virtues as beauty and expressive power but also its own mode of discourse, drawn largely from Shchedrin’s synthesis of musical elements from the Russian Orthodox Church. Like Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, it is based on a story by Nikolai Leskov, yet it operates in a spiritual realm quite at odds with the sensuality of Shostakovich’s opera.

The life of the protagonist, Ivan Flyagin, has its lurid elements: his killing of a priest by flogging, his torture by Tatars, an affair with a gypsy girl. But they are shrouded in mysticism, viewed as flashbacks from a state of grace, which he attains after becoming a priest.

Points of conflict exist, yet the tone of The Enchanted Wanderer is one of overarching repose. Chant-like utterances from the chorus, church bells mingling among the sonorities, vocal melismas with an oriental flavour all serve to cleanse past events and lure the listener into contemplation. It is a daring task Shchedrin set for himself and he does not always succeed, but, as with his later opera Boyarina Morozova, the religious content seems to have won favour from the Russian audience.

Gergiev led a beautifully balanced performance as he strove to sustain an aura of otherworldliness for nearly 90 minutes. Sergei Alexashkin was on superb form as Ivan. Kristina Kapustinskaya, as the gypsy Grusha, and Yevgeny Akimov, in a variety of roles, made fine contributions. Inexcusably, neither surtitles nor printed texts were supplied.
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