Sunday 13 December 2015

Heroic undertaking - Weinberg's The Idiot

Weinberg - The Idiot
Mieczyslaw Weinberg The Idiot; Juhan Tralla, Steven Scheschareg, Ludmila Slepneva, Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim, Thomas Sanderling; Pan Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 8 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Heroic account of Weinberg's huge final Dostoyevsky-based opera

Operas by Mieczyslaw Weinberg are beginning to get greater currency with The Passenger being performed at Bregenz, Houston, Chicago and at ENO.  Mieczyslaw Weinberg's final opera, The Idiot was written in 1985 based on the novel by Dostoyevsky and premiered in Moscow in 1991 in shortened version with reduced orchestration. But the opera had to wait until 2013 for the premiere of the full version, in a new production at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim.  In 2014 this production was committed to disc on on Pan Classics.  

The recording was made live at the Nationaltheater, Mannheim in January 2014, with Juhan Tralla as Myshkin, Steven Scheschareg as Rogoshin, Ludmila Slepneva as Natassya Filippovna, Lars Moller as Lebedef, Bryan Boyce as Totsky, Bartosz Urbanowicz as Epanchin, Elzbieta Ardam as Epanchina, Anne-Theresa Moller as Aglaya, Tamara Banjeevic as Alexandra, Uwe Eikotter as Ganya, Tatjjan Rjasanova as Warja and JeongkonChoi as Grinder, with Thomas Sanderling conducting the Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim.

Weinberg's The Idiot at Nationaltheater, Mannheim
Weinberg's The Idiot at Nationaltheater, Mannheim
It is a substantial work, over three hours of music (208 minutes), 12 sung roles and a large orchestra. Taking Dostoyevsky's novel as its starting point, the work is also a large, serious piece. Returning from treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland, Prince Myshkin is a naive, compassionate nature loose in St Petersburg society; people treat him as an idiot and take advantage of him. He aims to save Nastassya but only ends up destroying her. Inevitably, the opera's ten scenes involve a lot of compression of the various plot lines on Dostoyevsky's book and the plot synopsis comes with three different back stories to taken on board. But to Dostoyevsky' story Weinberg and his librettist, Alexander Medwedjew, added solos for the Prince, philosophical musings which are the closest we get to arias in the opera. The other big change is the ending with instead of Myshkin going mad, he and his black nemesis Rogozhin embrace over the body of Nastassya as the opera reveals what we knew all along, that the two are one, two sides of the same coin.

Myshkin's experiences as an exile, learning an unfamiliar language, cut off from a family he was never to see again, and increasingly infirm, would seem to have had resonances with a composer who fled his Polish homeland during World War Two, struggled to gain acceptance in the Soviet Union and was diagnosed with Crohn's disease from his late 50's. He counted Dostoyevsky as his favourite writer but we have no indication of when and why he chose the subject of The Idiot for an opera.

Much of the music is dark and serious, intense and full of symphonic detail. But there are lyrical and comic moments too, a Weimar-esque piano, lyrical moments for Myshkin and Nastassya, as well as poignant duets for them.  In style, though there are hints of Weinberg's friend Shostakovich there are other influences too, and you think of such distinctive 20th century voices as Bernd Alois Zimmerman.

Reading the reviews of the live performances, I was struck by how many people were enthusiastic about the work and proclaimed it quite a discovery. On disc it is rather harder to apprehend, and you have to stick close to the libretto to stand a chance of working out what is going on (luckily Pan Classics provides on in Russian, German and English). The role of Myshkin is huge and Estonian tenor Juhan Tralla wonderfully heroic. There are times when you are aware of the sheer power the role is taking but there are poetic moments too, and you have to admire someone who can make the ending to poignant after so much music. Steven Schechareg makes a strong Rogozhin, dark and firm voiced, scary yet sympathetic. Ludmila Slepneva has a strong spinto vein in her voice, making Nastassya quite strong and independent sounding and not always loveable. The surrounding characters, many from the Mannheim company, are all admirably strong and supporting.

I have to admit though, that much as I admire the commitment and the energy which has gone into this production, I do find that without any stage action Weinberg's vocal lines, with their rather steady syllabic setting of text, get rather wearing. This, combined with the rather dramatic nature of much of the delivery make the opera somewhat hard work. What transforms it is the performance from Thomas Sanderling and the orchestra. He clearly has a strong command of the sprawling idiom of the piece, and his orchestra plays superbly for him. This is very much a symphonic opera, and the orchestra is frequently to the fore. Weinberg produces some wonderfully magic moments and some dazzling orchestration. This set is well worth listening to for Sanderling and the orchestra, and he is clearly a talent to watch.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) - The Idiot (1985) [208:00]
Juhan Tralla as Myshkin
Steven Scheschareg as Rogoshin
Ludmilla Slepneva as Natassya Filippovna
Lars Moller as Lebedef
Bryan Boyce as Totsky
Bartosz Urbanowicz as Epanchin
Elzbieta Ardam as Epanchina
Anne-Theresa Moller as Aglaya
Tamara Banjeevic as Alexandra
Uwe Eikotter as Ganya
Tatjjan Rjasanova as Warja and JeongkonChoi as Grinder
Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim
Thommas Sanderling (conductor)
Recorded 12 & 13 January 2014, Nationaltheater, Mannheim
PanClassics PC10328 3CD's

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