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The Children of Rosenthal

MOSCOW
Bolshoi Theatre
3/27/05

Leonid Desyatnikov's The Children of Rosenthal ought to have attracted attention simply because it marks the Bolshoi Theater's first world premiere of an opera since 1979. But it gained unexpected notoriety a few weeks before its March 23 opening when a member of the Russian Duma (the lower house of Parliament) charged that it was pornographic and should be banned. The Bolshoi righteously denounced what it called an attempted return to Soviet-era censorship while also denying - correctly, it turned out - the substance of the charge. The new opera may have its faults, but pornographic content isn't one of them.

It does have a libretto by Vladimir Sorokin, however, a popular author whose work had previously run afoul of certain guardians of Russia's morality. A murky youth group called Moving Together pounced on his 1999 novel Blue Lard, which reportedly contains a sadomasochistic encounter between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev. Without bothering to investigate, Moving Together and certain Duma members assumed that the new opera (which by chance also deals with cloning) must have similar content. Yet even after forty Duma members attended the dress rehearsal at the Bolshoi's invitation, the attacks continued. One member called the production a "triumph of devilry on the opera stage."

It was a heady atmosphere for the birth of a new opera, and The Children of Rosenthal won a measure of popular and critical success. I wish I felt more positively about it. For one thing, it can't decide whether it is serious opera or farce. A number of great operas, of course, combine the two, but the mix here is unsettling. The plot is pure fantasy. Rosenthal, a young German-Jewish scientist, discovers the secret of human cloning in the 1930s. Fleeing the Nazis, he settles in Russia, where his work wins honors from Stalin. For his own personal enrichment, however, he clones five opera composers: Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. The scientist survives into the topsy-turvy post-Soviet period, but his improvident death leaves his "children" (or duplicates, as Sorokin calls them) to fend for themselves on the streets of Moscow. Mozart weds Tanya, a prostitute, who promises to bring him and the other duplicates home to the Crimea. But her disgruntled pimp spikes the wedding vodka with poison, killing all but Mozart, who survives to face an uncertain future.

From his music, it is clear that Desyatnikov wants to win the audience's sympathies for the plight of the duplicates and their demise, and in a program-book interview he says the opera is to be taken seriously, calling it a "declaration of love for nineteenth-century opera." But the plot is so farfetched and the death scene so grotesquely unreal that Children has something of the feel of black Russian humor without the musical irony to go with it. By injecting no fewer than five composers into the action, Sorokin presented Desyatnikov with opportunities for musical eclecticism on an unheard-of scale, but perhaps realizing that to take full advantage of them would create more amusement than poignancy, Desyatnikov took a judicious approach. The styles of Mozart and Wagner (a trouser role!) are pretty much ignored. Mussorgsky surfaces in an earthy song that might be sung by the monk Varlaam, Verdi in a mellifluous, Traviata-like love duet. Most engaging is Desyatnikov's evocation of the dreaminess of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Otherwise, the tonally oriented score is easy on performer and listener alike.

Producer Eimuntas Nekrosius is apparently of the opinion that no opera is too new to be reinterpreted. He added all sorts of absurdist touches, even having Rosenthal reappear around the time the duplicates are dying, to receive a haircut in a barber's chair. Marius Nekrosius's sets and Nadezhda Gultyaeva's costumes likewise eschew realism for idiosyncrasy. With cloth headpiece and long coat, Rosenthal looked every bit the mad scientist, an image reinforced by his stern music, which was firmly sung by Vadim Lynkovsky. Elena Voznesenskaya, a radiant soprano, gave the drama a lift with Tanya's belated appearance in Act II. Maksim Paster's sweetly lyrical tenor served Tchaikovsky's music handsomely, though the character is made unduly wimpish; Roman Muravitsky's burly tenor served Mozart less well. Bass Valery Gilmanov was an imposing Mussorgsky, and baritone Andrey Grigoriev sang resonantly as Verdi. The spirited reading of the score by the company's music director Alexander Vedernikov conveyed the joy of having a new opera at the Bolshoi, whatever its shortcomings.

GEORGE LOOMIS

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