Two productions, both under musical direction of Valery Gergiev, could have been seen at Mariinsky Theatre on consecutive days in February 2020: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita. Both are new productions for Mariinsky Theatre: Anna Matison’s original staging of Debussy’s masterpiece opened in October 2019 and is still in its extended premiere season, while Slava Daubnerova’s production is a transferral from National Theatre in Prague (2019) with the same Russian soloists. Both operas explore erotic and love longings that lead to disasters, but the material is radically different, first being a tragedy of mythological, symbolical kind, the second exploring the individual’s strive into unknown lands of erotic wishes that are banned by society and the ensuing guilt. The differences between probably also mark the huge watershed that lies between the 19th century when fairytales, romanticism and deep connection between human souls was still possible and the following centuries of self-centered individualism and self-probing encumbered by subdued and unexpectedly exploding libidos. It is striking how different is also the general after-taste that the operas leave behind: the cathartic, freshening and empowering tears after Debussy, and tension, shock, exhaustion and pain after Shchedrin’s new opera. However, both lead the audiences to better understanding of the extremes to where human soul and body can go, with these borderlines of existence being suddenly shed light upon.

This time Yulia Savikovskaya reviews Lolita by Rodion Shchedrin (conductor – Valery Gergiev, director – Slava Daubnerova). You may read the review of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande here.

“Lolita”, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Lolita is obviously very different from Debussy’s in subject and music substance, although forbidden longings and tragic denouement are also present here. Shchedrin began working on the opera in the early 1990s when he was inspired by Mstislav Rostropovich to do so – and the opera received its premiere in Stockholm in 1994. It took more than 25 years for it to reach the stage of Mariinsky Theatre (where almost all operas of the composer have been shown in recent years), but in February 2020 the audiences could finally see production – in transferral from National Theatre of Prague (2019) with the same soloists. Shchedrin used Nabokov’s Russian text for his own libretto, while subtitles interestingly were taken from its English versions that occasionally causes discrepancies.

Musically the opera is very eclectic. It pays homage to Wagner, adopting a system of leitmotifs, while although, similarly to Janaček, through slowing down the tempi and at first sounding partly monotonous, tries to render patterns of human speech in music. It also, perhaps like Varèse, introduces renditions of street sounds in orchestral writing. Ideologically, Shchedrin weers away from Nabokov’s refusal to moralize and follows Russian tradition introduced by Dostoevsky where every criminal story should contribute to the reader’s personal growth by distinguishing between right or wrong. In this Lolita we see the character Humbert Humbert as a new Raskolnikov who is allowed to speak before his judges while living through the tormented hell of his memories, but in the end, similarly to Goethe’s Faust, seeing a glimpse of salvation in a children’s chorus singing an ode to Mother Mary. And indeed, this constant turbulent oscillation between devil and angels, sombre and humane sides of the soul are at the core of Schedrin’s operatic creation, and he invites us to follow this path together.

“Lolita”, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

The set design by Boris Kudlichka is minimalistic, influenced by European avant-garde, but also by the subject matter of the opera. The Mariinsky stage allows to have many objects on it at once, but all of them are ‘disembodied’, don’t belong or sometimes are literally only half of the thing they are supposed to represent: it increases the feeling of void we have from the very start. Shchedrin rounds the opera in the ‘guilt’ circle by starting it with a scene where Humbert is shooting his rival, the playwright Quilty, while the latter is having a bath. The main character is feeling only responsible for Lolita’s seduction, but not for this crime (such double standards are again similar to those of Raskolnikov). In this opera Humbert is always in some kind of dialogue with a chorus of men, who are his judges, but probably no longer on Earth, but rather in Heaven, and appear as his dark angels of conscience everytime he speaks about his past. Shchedrin makes this a monologue opera, despite presence of multiple characters, as everything is perceived through Humbert’s eyes. That is why the musical material that might seem monotonous in the beginning, widens and gains variations further on, as we discover ghosts hidden in the protagonist’s memory. Everyone and everything here is the shadow of Humbert’s recollections – and that explains halved carcasses of cars, a similar motel for everyone where the couple lives in, a very simplistic (almost a caricature) interior of Charlotte’s house that can fold and disappear, like a house of cards. And in fact, it indeed does so in the second half of the opera: while it has been filling the space before, the further the opera develops, the barer the sets gets, living us with a representation of a car (cabin only) and the same motel with the same sign (The Enchanted Hunters) for all further proceedings, including the deja-vu murder of Quilty in his bath. Then the stage bares again, with every object disappearing, apart from the bench where Lolita and Humbert meet for the last time, and the chorus of girls (all aged similarly to Lolita) begings to surround Humbert,– not judging him, but rather praying to the Godmother for him. This chorus is accompanied by a set of videos of modern teenagers with cheerful or sad, mischievous or mysterious glances – all having lives and futures of their own – that passage of time that we call life that Lolita was deprived of.

“Lolita”, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

But somehow this very moment gives a raison-d-etre to the whole opera, becomes its redemption, purification, clearly bears its moral message intended by Shchedrin, as otherwise it is an opera which is difficult to watch despite the minimum presence of openly sexual or violent scenes. Its dramatism lies in its constant inner intensity that, when bursts open, is even more frustrating to watch: all the possibilities of exciting reading that the reader of Nabokov might secretly experience are swiped clean by Shchedrin, as we see Humbert (Pyotr Sokolov) having a an erection when Lolita (Pelageya Kurennaya) rhythmically sings Car-men, Car-men with him while naively bouncing her leg on his groin. This is followed by moments in a motel cabin that reveal the horrific violence of the trespassing of human dimension that desire drives Humbert to. We see a tired and disheveled Lolita who wants to sleep or have a drink filmed by Humbert on a camera (him filming her earlier in a bathroom reveals his voyeristic desire and it is these videos that are found by Charlotte before her death), and then he jumps violently on her with lights dimming, thus crossing the divide once and for all. It is really amazing how both Shchedrin through his music and the director (Slava Daubnerova) manage to show the horror of this trespassing without excessive naturalism, but that is why this opera is a continuous strain on us as listeners and observers, as we almost commit the crime and suffer together with Humbert.

“Lolita”, photo by Natasha Razina © Mariinsky Theatre

Considering all mentioned above, Pyotr Sokolov and Pelageya Kurennaya both are outstanding in their respective roles, with Sokolov showing the contrast between outward humility and relative youth of his character (we tend to forget his is in his 30s) and the hell that torments him inside, with violent streaks changing the singer, making both his vocal performance and behaviour on stage intense, determinstic, thought-through. Sokolov also acts very powerfully in the scenes where he is in dialogue with the chorus of his conscience, aptly switching from between ‘action’ and ‘recollection’ modes. He is contrasted by devilish Claire Quilty sung by a Chech tenor Aleš Briscein and reminding us of Britten’s Death in Venice (based on Thomas Mann’s tale of desire) where the protagonist was also haunted by figures reprsenting the darker side of his conscience. Pelageya Kurennaya who has a firm presence in Mariinsky’s repertoire is the discovery of the evening, as she manages both to show the gradual decline of a girl into a fallen woman who is striving to retain her teenagehood till the very end. Kurennaya has a wonderful, deep mezzo-soprano that goes in stark contrast with her slight and short built and teenager curls (a wig for the role). Thus the woman in her is powerfully revealed through her voice, while her boyish movements and childish moodiness cover the sufferings of the incongruity of her stuation (she is not afraid, but she is in pain, she is bored by sex but she loses interest in it for life) till the very end when in her white dress and a bump she finally meets with the woman in herself she was forced to become. Darya Rositskaya does a very good attempt at farcical characterization with singing the mother Charlotta – a frustrated middle-aged woman. One could suppose that it was quite a challenge for Valery Gergiev to conduct this opera, but he is not a newcomer as far as Rodion Shchedrin is concerned as the maestro has been in the ochestra pit for all premieres of the composer at the Mariinsky – and thus he lives through the torment that music powerfully reflects and powerfully takes the musicians and singers with him.