Life With an Idiot
Review by John Rockwell published 15 April 1992 in The New York Times
What may have been the most important event in Russian operatic history since the first staged performance of Prokofiev’s “Story of a Real Man” in Moscow in 1960 took place Monday night. In Amsterdam.
The occasion was the world premiere of “Life With an Idiot”, the first opera by Alfred Schnittke, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany, but who counts as Russia’s most respected, best-known living composer. The performance at the Netherlands Music Theater of this surrealist, often grotesque and sexually explicit score took place in the presence of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus and was greeted with a fervent standing ovation.
Narrated by a character known simply as “I”, the libretto tells of a man guilty of some unidentified crime who is ordered by the party to bring an idiot into his home as punishment. But his idiot, Vova, soon starts disrupting his happy home. Eventually Vova seduces I’s wife and then I himself. Vova kills the wife, and I winds up in the asylum, an idiot himself.
The three Americans who took the principal roles – the baritone Dale Duesing as I, the soprano Teresa Ringholz as My Wife and the tenor Howard Haskin as Vova, the Idiot – won cheers, Mr. Duesing especially. But the greatest applause was for Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted, and for Mr. Schnittke. The sight of Mr. Rostropovich, who is the most fervent hugger and kisser since Leonard Bernstein, tugging the shy and back-pedaling Mr. Schnittke into the limelight created one of the sweeter curtain calls in recent operatic annals.
It was not Mr. Schnittke and Mr. Rostropovich alone who made this such a significant occasion. The librettist was Viktor Yerofeyev, who based his work on his short story of the same name; Mr. Yerofeyev, who lives in Moscow, has had his first novel, “Russian Beauty”, published in 25 countries. The stage director was the 82-year-old Boris Pokrovsky, who has been associated with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow since 1943 and was its chief stage director for 26 of those years. The decor was by Ilya Kabakov, a well-known avant-garde Russian artist.
All these talents came together because Pierre Audi, the innovative artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, “pounced” on the chance to commission the opera when he heard from the composer that he felt inspired by Mr. Yerofeyev’s story. Mr. Audi then brought Mr. Rostropovich on board and acceded to his wishes for the rest of the team. Mr. Rostropovich said he had been trying to collaborate with Mr. Pokrovsky for 18 years.
The premiere took place in Amsterdam, where it will play through April 30, for another reason as well. Russia long shunned Mr. Schnittke’s musical progressiveness and now, when it might wish to honor him, cannot afford to do so. There is even some thought, however, that Mr. Yerofeyev’s scabrous tale and Mr. Schnittke’s biting musical satire might still be too much for Russian conservatism. “I think this opera would shock people in Russia,” Mr. Yerofeyev said at the post-premiere reception. “When I wanted to do it at the Bolshoi, they told me they were too bolshoi for it.” In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand.
Mr. Yerofeyev has translated his story ingeniously to the stage, but the very act of expanding a highly literary tale into the broad gestures of opera has underscored the allegorical implications. The libretto does contain key phrases like I’s desire for “a blessed, holy-fool-type abnormality, national in form and content”. At the end – this is the last line of the story – he talks of “the swan song of my revolution”. Mr. Schnittke, for his part, satirizes everything in sight, including the “Internationale” in a version so dissonant that Mr. Rostropovich said it “smelled like Roquefort”. Soviet-style red is the dominant color of the production, the program book and the poster. Vova is even made up to look like Lenin.
Such hints point the viewer toward an interpretation of the opera as a critique of Communism, the ordinary Russian seduced and destroyed by mindless, systematic monomania. Marcel Proust wanders helplessly through the piece, and Mr. Yerofeyev said “he represents culture in this century, but Vova is stronger”. The Dutch press has labeled the opera “a requiem for the Soviet Union”.
In an interview, Mr. Rostropovich conceded with a wink that “of course” Vova was meant to look like Lenin, adding that “I always see the history of my country in this opera”. But all the participants also wished the opera to be perceived in more universal terms than mere political satire. “Vova is also Hitler or Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Rostropovich argued. “Any dictator with an idee fixe.”
Mordant skepticism has long been a part of Mr. Schnittke’s musical personality, and such tendencies dominate this opera. The often dissonant music ranges from the eerily atmospheric, to raucous ensembles, to singers and choral ensembles and instrumentalists spread about the theater, to a tango with Mr. Rostropovich at the piano, to a short but moving cello solo for the conductor, who also happens to be the world’s best-known cellist.
The Role of Humor
Mr. Rostropovich and Mr. Audi even suggested that there was something inherently Russian in finding serious art funny — such as the eerie a trio that ends the opera, the Wife singing addled bird song, Vova howling “Ech” (the only word he ever sings) and I meandering on, as mad as Tom Rakewell at the end of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”. Mr. Rostropovich said that while that passage moved him to tears, Mr. Schnittke found it hilarious.
Mr. Schnittke, however, insisted that his music encompassed serious, unambiguously emotional sentiments, too. An admiring Russian composer in a recent BBC documentary film said that what made any Schnittke premiere exciting was that one never knew what kind of music one might hear. Although his “poly stylistic” approach constantly threatens to lose focus, Mr. Rostropovich insisted that the composer had “so strong a personality” that coherence was maintained.
Although Mr. Schnittke has had two physically debilitating strokes, one four years ago and one last June, his mind is sharp and he is pressing forward with two new operatic projects. Both are for the West, one on the Faust theme for Frankfurt and another on the life of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo for Vienna. Neither, he said, would tap his skeptical vein in any way.
All this work, he added contentedly, will be composed in Hamburg, not Moscow. He was surrounded by Russian well-wishers at the premiere, but he has no intention of returning to Russia any time soon.
Born in 1934 to a father born in Germany and a German-Jewish mother, he said that “I have long suffered in Russia because I have not one drop of Russian blood”. Mr. Rostropovich suggested that Mr. Schnittke’s case was “like a dog: if you always beat a dog, he is not coming back to the place where he was beaten. In Moscow all of Schnittke’s life, they beat him.”