“Boycott Gergiev” resounded from the warm-up act outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night. Operas occasionally warrant protests against composers or management directors, and the atmosphere aroused a sense that this production might offend or desecrate the mind. However, Shchedrin’s opera The Enchanted Wanderer is the complete opposite of shocking and director Alexei Stepanyuk’s staging alongside Valery Gergiev’s command over the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra revealed something of a translucid daydream.

Andrei Popov and Kristina Kapustinskaya © Jack Vartoogian
Andrei Popov and Kristina Kapustinskaya
© Jack Vartoogian

Shchedrin conceptualised the opera for the concert stage at the dawn of the new millennium, blurring the boundary between opera and oratorio through the adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novel. Leskov, whose Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District caught the attention of Shostakovich, wrote of a man who rejects a monastic life, journeys tormented, and becomes a monk after his options run dry, and he published his work the same year the Three Emperors’ Alliance formed for a more peaceful Europe. Over a century later, the text is religious and detached and Shchedrin’s music innovative and alluring. The opera depicts a man’s physical and mental state as he is faced with adversity, so Shchedrin’s motive for composing may have been to meditate on rather than to confront social issues. The protagonist deals with matters of peer pressure, alcoholism and gypsy love; however, the details of the story are not exactly concrete, so events could be rearranged to achieve the same end goal.

Stepanyuk envisioned a world of Slavic mysticism with dead grain stalks spread across the stage and two perpendicular ropes intertwined at the core of the stage. The flow of the action on stage repeatedly outlined a compounded domino effect, and the architecture for this pattern is clearly built into Shchedrin’s score. One would begin a motion and others would imitate the motion until all characters on stage were participating before the motion stopped abruptly. For instance, a Tatar would begin swaying, his compatriots would imitate his actions, and immediately a new scene would begin. Furthermore, it’s clear from the protracted nature of the text setting that Shchedrin did not envision his music accompanied by lifelike action.

Gergiev has a knack for both selecting originative programming and presenting talented singers in the international spotlight. He and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra were hidden below the stage, making it impossible to see him tremble his magical fingers but directing focus on the vocalists. Oleg Sychov stepped in for Sergei Aleksashkin to sing protagonist Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin, and his lowest bass notes resonated with such luminous overtones that his voice rang like a bell throughout his performance.

Oleg Sychov and Andrei Popov © Jack Vartoogian
Oleg Sychov and Andrei Popov
© Jack Vartoogian

Andrei Popov showcased his versatility as an actor playing five different characters and demonstrated his vocal control as a tenor through his sonorous head voice. Achieving a consistent delivery with occasional low notes lost to the orchestra, mezzo-soprano Kristina Kapustinskaya sung the role of Grusha, the gypsy. She successfully pulled off an ambitious part-Slavic bleating, part-Shchedrin invented vocal passage near the end of the first part. A point of high tension, this solo is one of the most memorable and distinguished moments of the opera – and in opera history for that matter. Hovering above the back of the stage, the choir sang prayers and narration in Slavic costume. More distracting than one would expect, the choristers held scores and many had difficulty sitting still. Seeing the scores expelled the mind from the world on stage and unintentionally violated the viewer’s aesthetic distance.

The opera ended without a conflict solved or a lesson learned; the audience did not reach salvation or weep with sorrow. But conflicts go unresolved as we see in today’s political climate, and Shchedrin’s opera helps us realize this fact.