Children! Listen and be quiet!
by Opera Buff
An evening at the opera. There were barricades, riot police, infra-red searches, hairspray was banned, and armed security guards stood in the stalls during the entire performance. Where were we? La Scala, where it is traditional for the elite to be protected from the poor? No, we were at the Bolshoi to see the premiere of Rosenthal’s Children, the ‘pornographic’ opera by the composer Leonid Desyatnikov and the writer Vladimir Sorokin.
Pornography at the Bolshoi! No, it couldn’t be, I thought. Outside, I watched as members of the youth group Moving Together, which supports President Putin, publicly burned Sorokin’s books in Theatre Square, then threw copies of yet more of his books into a giant model of a toilet erected outside the theatre. Sorokin is the writer who made himself famous with his novel Goluboye Salo (Gay Lard) which depicts sex between former Soviet leaders Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.
“We are protesting that a man who is a pornographer and uses foul language is being given a platform in the Russian State Bolshoi Theater, with state funds,” said the group’s head, Vasily Yakemenko.
Members of the Duma were eager to get in on the act, “I don’t understand why there was a choir of prostitutes on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre,” said Irina Savelyova of the Rodina party. She and some of her outraged colleagues walked out before the end of the dress rehearsal.
The Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi (who in effect had paid for the opera) bravely defended his unloved child, “The music is fantastic, and it is a social work about a difficult relationship between the artist and the state. The same heroes exist in Carmen and Madam Butterfly.”
That is what all the fuss was about; but was it worth all the fuss? Yes and no.
The opera is ‘about’ a scientist, Rosenthal, who clones five great classical composers: Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Verdi and Mozart. Rosenthal dies at the end of Act I, and his children, unable to cope on their own in 1990s Russia, at the beginning of Act II find themselves out on the street. Mozart, the wayward genius, falls in love with a prostitute, Tanya, whose pimp does what a pimp does when he thinks he’s going to lose his best working girl, he… (I won’t spoil the ending for you).
I put ‘about’ in quotes because you do not have to sit in the Duma to work out that Sorokin has written a fable about modern Russia. It is a very well-written, and a very damning, fable; perhaps that is why the Duma doesn’t like it.
If, like members of the Duma, you buy a ticket expecting to see sex on stage, you will be disappointed — there is no sex, no nudity, no bad language. But I knew that before the curtain went up because I bought the programme booklet and actually read the libretto.
Forget the scandal, which has nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics. Sorokin is serious about his work, and serious about opera: “I am creating a brand new myth… which starts out in the spirit of Wagner, passes through the sensuality of Tchaikovsky, through Mussorgsky’s feeling for the Russian national character, and finishes with the humanity of Verdi and the touching emotions of Mozart.”
The collaboration between Sorokin and Desyatnikov is a close one: “He (Desyatnikov) does more or less the same thing in music that I do in literature: he treats the classics in the same careful way, but not as something lifeless… as living elements.” They are updating opera, not forgetting what has gone before.
Desyatnikov writes that, “my opera is a declaration of love for 19th century opera.” He is Tchaikovsky’s heir, but that is to deny him the paternity of Mussorgsky, Wagner, Verdi and Mozart, for their music is in his veins and in his score.
“Each scene, which corresponds to a particular composer is centred on a particular key. The opera begins in A, later on it shifts to A flat – this is Wagner’s part. B and B flat represent Tchaikovsky, and so on.” This type of musical characterisation is a standard of all opera, but here, in an opera about the cloning of genius, it has a very particular significance. The decoding of music is a favourite pastime of music critics, and here they have an opera to decode, which is as complex as DNA. Desyatnikov admits that, “there’s anything and everything, it’s all in there.” It doesn’t matter, however, if you do, or you don’t, catch all the references, because the music has a level of beauty all it’s own.
But if one can only praise the libretto and the music, and the glorious sound coming from the orchestra of the Bolshoi (under Alexander Vedernikov), one can only wonder how the director Eimuntas Nekrosius could have come up with a staging that more often impedes than illuminates. The sets by Marius Nekrosius are clumsy, and the costumes by Nadezhda Gultyava are dull. There are giant perambulators; television screens showing clips of Dolly the cloned sheep; historical film of Stalin, Brezhnev and Krushchev, with propaganda speeches. Sometimes there is so much happening on stage and on screen that you stop listening to the music and the singing. Sometimes it is best to just close your eyes and listen.
Mozart, says Sorokin, “is the emotional lynchpin of the whole opera,” and also of the music. The two singers who give the music the most emotional power are Roman Muravitsky, as Mozart, and Elena Voznesenskaya, as Tanya. Of course it helps that they have the best music to sing. There is a great moment (and this opera has many such moments) in Act II when Mozart and Tanya sing a love duet that is too affecting to be called ‘Mozartian.’ Desyatnikov is his own man.
Rosenthal’s Children is an opera for adults, not about children, but about genius. The grown-ups are playing at being children. As for any real children, they left before the end.
When: April 2, 21 and 24
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes (including one interval)
Where: New Stage of the Bolshoi