Ever since I saw Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, I have become a huge fan of 20th century opera. Some of my favorite 20th century operas include a diverse range from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to Shostakovich’s The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. For me, operas that were composed in the 20th century not only included the new musical techniques of the century, but many of them portrayed the human psychology of the time. I was interesting in seeing Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Dead Souls at the Mariinsky II because I have never heard any of his music. As a Russian musicologist studying in St. Petersburg, I wanted to experience music that I have never heard before and see musical production that I have never seen. Dead Souls was a great choice for me because the opera is based on a work by one favorite Russian author (Nikolai Gogol) and was conducted by one of my favorite conductors (Valery Gergiev).
The composer of the opera, Rodion Shchedrin, was born in Moscow in 1932. His father was a composer and taught music theory. Shchedrin studied at the Moscow Choral School and graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1955. He married the well-known ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, in 1958. Besides being an accomplished composer, Shchedrin is a virtuoso pianist and organist. He received the USSR State Prize in 1972, the Lenin Prize in 1984, and the Russian State Prize from Boris Yeltsin in 1992. In 1989, he became a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts.
The opera, Dead Souls, is in three acts with the libretto being written by the composer himself. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is the subject of the opera. Gogol’s novel was published in 1842. The novel was a political satire commenting on the state of the Russian people living in provincial towns in the 1840s. Shchedrin’s opera was composed in 1976 and the opera premiered on June 7, 1977 by the Bolshoi Theater Chorus and Orchestra in Moscow. Rodion Shchedrin is one of several Russian composers who used the works of Gogol as subjects for operas. Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich all composed operas based on the works of Gogol.
I was really impressed by Dead Souls, not only the music and the singing, but the production and stage design. This opera reminded me of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. Both operas highlights the satirical aspects of Gogol’s works and even though the topics may have a serious nature, one cannot help but laugh at the silliness of the many different characters. I really was struck by the music of the peasant songs, which created a huge contrast to the modern music throughout the opera. The best thing about seeing this opera is that it made me want to listen to more music composed by Rodion Shchedrin. I have never seen an opera by a living composer and I hope that I will get the chance to discover more Russian composers who wrote music after Shostakovich.
Dead Souls/ Мёртвые души
Mariinsky Opera Theater
Valery Gergiev (conductor)