DESYATNIKOV The Children of Rosenthal
Alexander Vedernikov, cond; Pyotr Migunov (Rosenthal); Kristina Mkhitaryan (Tanya); Irina Rubtsova (Nanny); Elena Manistina (Wagner); Maxim Paster (Tchaikovsky); Vsevolod Grivnov (Mozart); Vassily Ladyuk (Verdi); Alexander Teliga (Mussorgsky); Bolshoi Theater Chorus and Orchestra MELODIYA 10 02432 (2 CDs: 119:28)
Leonid Desyatnikov’s opera caused a stir in Moscow when it was premiered at the Bolshoi in 2005. Protests by a pro-Putin youth organization took place outside the opera house, and an obscenity case was brought before the Duma. The controversy centered on the choice of librettist, Vladimir Sorokin, a novelist with a reputation for presenting historical figures in compromising, and often pornographic, scenarios. In post-Soviet Russia, the nation’s 20th-century history is still a sensitive topic, and radical re-interpretations stir strong emotions.
The Duma investigation soon fizzled out—it turned out Sorokin’s libretto wasn’t as pornographic as his opponents were expecting. It is just as Postmodern though, and proves an ideal fit for Desyatnikov, a composer with similar interests in resurrecting (literally in this case) and radically reinterpreting the past. The opera was a commission from the Bolshoi, the first, and still only, new work by the company since the fall of the Soviet system. But given the changes in Russian society and culture in those years it could hardly be more timely, presenting modern Moscow as city of confused identity, still clinging to outmoded ideas about its past, even as they become tenuous to the point of absurdity.
The plot centers around a genetic scientist called Alex Rosenthal. He arrives in Soviet Russia as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, already having mastered a technique of human cloning. The reasons for his Jewish identity are not clear (to me at least), but the approval by the Soviet authorities of his research is more germane to the satire. As the story opens, he has already cloned Wagner (a mezzo voice here, Elena Manistina), Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Mussorgsky, and is in the process of cloning Mozart. The actual opening of the first scene is an impressive coup de theatre, with an eerily amplified voice telling the audience to switch off their mobile phones before giving the background and presenting the laboratory scene. All the actual cloning procedures are presenting in suitably sinister mood: Desyatnikov’s polystylism dominates most of the opera, but he is a Minimalist too, and ominously churning repeated figures in the orchestra underpin these opening scenes.
The story then follows the adventures of Rosenthal and his “children” through the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, with both presidents making cameo appearances. Eventually, with the fall of the Soviet system, Rosenthal loses his funding and soon dies. The orphaned clones are thrown out onto the streets, and the final act takes place in Moscow’s Komsomolskaya Square, a famously run-down area with the city’s four main terminus stations in close proximity. The five cloned composers are now living rough and busking for a living. Mozart falls in love with a prostitute named Tanya (Kristina Mkhitaryan), and the heroes’ efforts to buy off her pimp, Kela (Boris Statsenko), result in their all being poisoned. Only Mozart survives, and the final epilogue is a hallucination sequence, in which the four other clones return to sing in his dreams.
There is obviously much subtle satire of modern Russia that is lost on me, and probably on most other Western listeners too, but the musical pastiche and commentary is much easier to engage with. Just flicking through the synopsis, we find all sorts of allusions to the operas of the five composers, for example, act I, scene 2 opens with a number titled “Schlafst du, Wagner, mein Sohn?” Desyatnikov divides the work into sections referencing the styles of Wagner, Mussorgsky, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky. He plays a subtle game of stylistic allusion, never including any direct quotes, but often getting so close in style that the notes seem to match up with the originals. So, in the Mussorgsky section, Orthodox chant is sung by the chorus in the weighty, emphatic style of Boris Godunov, and, in the Wagner section, motifs that sound like they should be in the Ring cycle, but aren’t, regularly appear in the orchestra. The fact that the four referenced composers are almost contemporaneous means that a more generalized late-Romantic operatic style predominates, creating valuable, if slightly paradoxical, continuity across the work. But Desyatinkov often reminds us that this is not neo-Romanticism, as such, particularly in the way that he structures climaxes, his Minimalist techniques returning to the fore, with repeated lines accreting to increasingly chaotic and dissonant tuttis.
Performance-wise, this is an impressive release. The recording was made in 2015, presumably live and on the Bolshoi’s huge main stage, resulting in the voices sometimes sounding distant. Balance is good though, between stage and pit, with the voices always clear. Diction is good too, and Desyatnikov’s relatively straightforward word setting allows the text to come across clearly. The cast is presumably drawn from the Bolshoi company, and all prove equal to the music’s challenges. In fact, the generally late-Romantic sound here, combined with the composer’s obvious care in writing sympathetically for the voices, makes this seem like a straightforward sing, at least for contemporary opera, although that might be deceptive. Conductor Vladimir Vedernikov finds a good balance between dynamism and clarity, and, even without the visuals, the listening experience is one of being carried along from one aural scenario to the next.
Melodiya have produced an impressive package for this release, suggesting they are anticipating a high profile for it. The two discs come in a hard-back CD-box sized book, that also includes the libretto in Russian (Cyrillic) and English. They are not side by side, sadly, and, although the tracking on the two discs is generous (17 and 20 respectively), the track numbers are not included in either libretto.
But these are small qualms for what is otherwise an impressive release. Hopefully a video of the production is also in the works. This opera is obviously as innovative in its stagecraft as it is in its music, and, given the specifically Russian focus of much of the satire, it is difficult to imagine a Western production at any point in the near future. Post-Soviet Russian music is a confusing field, led by composers with an increasingly philosophical and abstract approach to their art. Leonid Desyatnikov is as theoretical and abstract as they come, but don’t let that put you off this opera, which is surprisingly accessible and endlessly intriguing, at least to these Western ears.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 40:3