Before writing a note of Gogol, composer Lera Auerbach immersed herself in the writer’s complete works and over twenty books written about him. It would take similar efforts to begin to understand this opera: taking us inside the fevered mind of its title character, Gogol is less a biographical narrative set to music than a phantasmagorical, psychological investigation. Given a virtuosic staging by director Christine Mielitz, it is also an overwhelming theatrical experience. I was never less than riveted, but as the evening wore on it became harder to relate to Gogol, even at the basic level of tortured genius sacrificing sanity on the altar of literary calling.

Ladislav Elgr (Bes), Otto Katzameier (Gogol) & Sebastian Schaffer (Nikolka), © Werner Kmetitsch
Ladislav Elgr (Bes), Otto Katzameier (Gogol) & Sebastian Schaffer (Nikolka),
© Werner Kmetitsch

The opera’s three acts are divided into seven scenes which blend fact with liberal amounts of invention. Among other things, Gogol wrestles with his (and Russia’s) demons by night, obsesses over his will and funeral arrangements, gets abused by doctors (‘but I don’t drink alcohol,’ he cries; ‘all the more reason for a leeching,’ they reply), bats away bothersome suitors with disconcertingly large papier-mâché breasts, falls in love with a nymph, and undergoes a literary show trial which culminates in his death. A victim not only to his own self-doubt, Gogol is plagued throughout the opera by the demon Bes, who seems conceived as Gogol himself in one of his many altered states of consciousness, and the witch Poshlust, a personification of the Russian concept of Poshlost, which can be described in the context of this character as something insidiously seductive. The cast is rounded off with the boy Nikolka, who could be Gogol as a child - an inner child who Gogol desperately tries to protect - or something altogether less representational.

Johannes Leiacker’s set is a Siberian wasteland dotted with snow angels which look like a man (presumably Gogol) falling through midair. These patterns conceal a network of trap doors from which the cast and chorus emerge. The chorus reacts differently to Gogol in each scene, playing his inner demons, hostile church congregation, mindless public, and judge and jury – all brought to life with impressively detailed choreography from Arila Siegert. But the spectacle doesn’t stop there: a trapeze artist is suspended from the rigging, his costume turning him into something of a human glitter ball; Gogol’s nymph (played as a ballerina) is likewise suspended in midair; and a man is set on fire. The circus stunts are sensational to watch, but to what extent they add meaning to the drama is debatable. Neglecting to develop Gogol’s character does seem like a conscious choice, but makes him a hard figure to read.

The score has its dissonant elements, with a spikiness that can sound like Shostakovich on steroids. But ultimately Auerbach’s accessible idiom makes no apologies for tonality and the music is for the most part lush, pulsing, and very Russian. How convincing one finds that will be a matter of personal taste, but for all the harking back Gogol is too distinctive, unpredictable, and postmodern to sound atavistic. Auerbach writes well for singers, though after Bo Skovhus fell ill and had to cancel his involvement in the project, it was wise to recast Gogol with two singers. Otto Katzameier sounded light for a baritone but managed Auerbach’s vocal demands with ease and cut a compelling figure dramatically. It was, however, Martin Winkler who stole the show with a powerful, rich tone and impressive clarity and consistency throughout his register. Ladislav Elgr struggled at moments, sounding strained, but imparted an impishness to the role that could quickly turn sinister. Vienna regular Natalia Ushakova was the most Russian-sounding of the cast, her big, dark soprano voice easily filling the house, with some remarkable feats of vocal agility. Choirboy purity and sweetness of tone for Nikolka wouldn’t have been right in this opera, and the earthier-sounding Sebastian Schaffer was able to convey a sense of understanding beyond his years, managing his sizeable role with a calm assurance. Supporting roles were all good, though a special mention must go to Falko Hönisch, who had to play Gogol’s prosecutor in his natural baritone and defence counsel in a tortuous, high falsetto tessitura.

The RSO Wien was ably directed by their former principal conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev. A little more transparency would have been welcome, though hard to achieve with Auerbach’s dense layers of sound. Playing was however solid with some good solos, particularly from their first violinist. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor was on typically excellent form, and in the score’s more dirge-like moments sounded every bit the authentic Russian Orthodox choir.

It remains to be seen whether Gogol will be absorbed into the repertory, but underneath the apparent superficiality of Christine Mielitz’s surreal staging lurks a fascinating if enigmatic evening of opera, which for the performances alone is highly recommended.