Still falling... (Part 1)

Posted on Mon, 2014-02-03 12:20 by David Pountney

Last night I 'collected' possibly the greatest 'fallen woman' in fiction: Nastasya Filippovna from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. This magnificently tempestuous character, so superbly imagined by Dostoevsky with all her emotional extremes and contradictions, is a welcome antidote to the Italian operatic variety, somewhat too prone to simpering self-pity. The occasion was a performance in Mannheim of Weinberg’s last opera, The Idiot, of which the theatre had given the world première last autumn. Here it was at its 6th performance in front of a sold-out house, which sat with rapt attention for three and a half hours, and sat on to give the cast four or five rounds of applause. There were no stars – it was cast entirely from the house ensemble, and there was an effective but quite sparse production. Weinberg wrote his opera in the mid 1980s, and it was only premièred in a reduced version at the Moscow Chamber opera – with typical bad luck just at the moment when the Soviet Union fell, ensuring that no-one paid the slightest attention to it. By then his musical style had moved on from The Passenger, (which was performed at ENO in 2012, and just opened in Houston last month) written in the 60s, and in The Idiot there is absolutely no trace any more of his great friend and mentor, Shostakovich. Instead Weinberg focusses in his entirely idiosyncratic way with developing the Russian parlando style of opera, originally formulated by Dargomyzhsky who was such a strong influence on Mussorgsky. This places all the emphasis on the characters and their text, and eschews melodic or orchestral expansion except when the situation absolutely demands it. The epic novel is very astutely adapted by Weinberg’s regular librettist Medvedev, and the result is a magnificent gallery of astonishing and powerful figures:

The saintly Idiot, Prince Myshkin, at once an embodiment of the Russian figure of the holy fool, and perhaps a kind of self portrait of the naïve composer himself.

The ebullient rogue, Rogozhin, a man of wild, untamed desires and limitless money – a kind of model for the hedonistic contemporary oligarch – but with an inexplicable yearning to be close to the saintly Prince – a noble soul in an ignoble body.

And the fallen woman, Nastasya Filippovna, groomed from the age of ten by the industrialist Totsky, seduced and debauched for fifteen years, and now about to be married off so that Totsky can move on to the exquisite Aglaya, one of the three daughters of General Yepanchin, himself a client of Nastasya’s.

Rogozhin is determined to buy Nastasya at all costs, and the prince to save her at all costs, and the initial crisis is precipitated at Nastasya’s 25th birthday party, at which her 'arranged marriage' should be announced, but instead she springs one surprise after another, including throwing 10,000 roubles into the fire and daring any of the greedy and money-obsessed men around her to burn their hand off fetching it out!

The Prince and Rogozhin both love her, and the ideal beauty Aglaya completes the triangle, but Nastasya is hopelessly torn between her desire for the life of excess with the one, and terrified of the life of truth with the other. In a profoundly moving final scene, the two men sit together in a darkened room as it slowly becomes clear that Rogozhin, unable to live without her, has murdered her, and that her body lies behind the closed door.

Weinberg accompanies this with expressive subtlety and reticence, allowing these mighty figures to express themselves, and especially through the second half creating an increasingly poignant atmosphere. This subtle approach might not appeal in all operatic venues, but Mannheim is different. They have been seeing opera since Mozart’s time at least, and have one of the largest ensembles in Europe performing around 30 titles per season for them, ranging from Carousel to Götterdämmerung. They know their Puccini and their Verdi, and of course love and admire them too, but then listen carefully and patiently to the way in which Weinberg is simply different. In central Europe, when at the opera or on a train, I must weep for my country!

The evening was rounded off by a little encounter which should have taken place in one of Joseph Roth’s central European hotels, in which Weinberg himself almost seemed to come to life amongst us. At the performance, by chance, was the director of the opera in Poznan (Poland) and its music director the conductor Gabriel Chmura, who has recorded many Weinberg symphonies and conducted both The Portrait and The Passenger. Thomas Sanderling, the conductor of The Idiot, invited us for a drink, or several, so we all shared a mutual mission! Thomas is the son of Kurt Sanderling, the famous Soviet conductor who performed many of Weinberg’s symphonic works, and Thomas knew Weinberg himself, having assisted Kondrashin on his recording of the 5th symphony – a work which Chmura has also recorded. Chmura did not know Weinberg personally, but revealed that his parents had, like Weinberg, fled East from the Nazi invasion in 1939, and then been sent to the Gulag by Stalin. They were released, and found themselves towards the end of the war in Tashkent, where many artists, and indeed entire orchestras had been evacuated. As musicians, they could even have met Weinberg at that time, who was working there as a repetiteur at the operetta theatre. Gabriel is Polish, but in fact he was born in Russia – actually in a coal wagon taking his parents very slowly back to Poland as the war ended. Miraculously the baby survived the journey, and all the threads of these experiences and reminiscences seemed to draw together on this special evening, full of the past, but also full of the promise for a fertile future for Weinberg’s special place in the firmament of composers. Only Nastasya Filippovna did not, sadly, put in a live appearance!