Oh, Lo, Lo, Lo, theyʼve gone and made an opera about you. Itʼs a tawdry affair, too, with bondage, orgasm, rape and murder presented explicitly onstage, no holds barred, no taboo left untouched. But the music is fantastic and the new production in Prague is a beauty, dark and foreboding, a noir nightmare brought to vivid, disturbing life by a first-rate team.

Pelageya Kurennaya (Lolita) © Patrik Borecký
Pelageya Kurennaya (Lolita)
© Patrik Borecký

Of all people, it was the incomparable cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who suggested to his friend, Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, that he set Vladimir Nabokovʼs sensational novel to music. Though the 1994 premiere in Stockholm was a success, as were subsequent debuts in Russia and Germany, this is the only the fourth full production of a work that presents serious challenges beyond its controversial subject matter.

Nabokovʼs novel may be about forbidden love, but at its core it is still a love story. There is nothing redeeming or uplifting about Shchedrinʼs opera, for which he also wrote the libretto; the characters are all bad people who come to bad ends. Even Lolita admits itʼs not her first time when Humbert Humbert finally beds her. How to hold the audienceʼs attention for a three-hour wallow through depravity?

Slovak director Sláva Daubnerová doesnʼt back off the characterizations – from the opening notes, Humbert is a ruthless sexual predator with no grey shadings, thoroughly amoral and filled with loathsome self-pity. But she places him in a morally ambiguous universe. The rotating stage spins almost constantly, scenes melt and divide, video images add layers of fantasy and guilt to the narrative, Humbert lumbers around the stage off-balance – all creating a powerful sense of vertigo, a world unmoored from conventional notions of right and wrong. The question is, how far can it go?

Petr Sokolov (Humbert Humbert) © Patrik Borecký
Petr Sokolov (Humbert Humbert)
© Patrik Borecký

In the atmosphere that Daubnerová creates, anything seems possible. The stage is perpetually dark, giving the few points of light – living room lamps, car headlights, traffic signals, a motel sign – unusual impact and ominous connotations. Even the chorus that appears on stage periodically as Humbertʼs judges seems swallowed by the void. Boris Kudličkaʼs ingenious set shows the action unfolding in several places simultaneously, and with an almost constant barrage of video projections, the overall visual effect is unsettling – confusing at times, but imbued with a sense of dread and unpredictability.

This reinforces Shchedrinʼs brilliant score, a modern masterwork that almost precludes the need for clear dialogue and titles. Motifs define the characters, abrupt changes in mood and tone propel the story, inventive instrumentation (tenor saxophone, celesta and harpsichord, chimes, rattles, bongo drums) lends a fresh burnish, and occasional sonic effects, like a phone ringing, add moments of unexpected humor.

As Humbert in the premiere performance, Russian baritone Petr Sokolov showed a consistently strong voice and offered a convincing portrayal of an obsessive tormented by his inner demons. The energetic Russian soprano Pelageya Kurennaya was less convincing as Lolita, partly because she was forced to romp around the stage in simian fashion for much of the first half. And her voice, a lovely coloratura, seems too delicate for the part. Russian mezzo Daria Rositskaya was an engaging Charlotte (Lolitaʼs mother), oversexed and emotionally volatile, running the gamut from endearing to outraged. Capable Ukrainian tenor Alexander Kravets seemed miscast as Clare Quilty, his whip-cracking voice and leering manner not likely to attract and seduce even a precocious teenager.

Daria Rositskaya (Charlotte) and Petr Sokolov (Humbert Humbert) © Patrik Borecký
Daria Rositskaya (Charlotte) and Petr Sokolov (Humbert Humbert)
© Patrik Borecký

Both the State Opera Choir and Kühn Childrenʼs Choir added lush backdrops, and special mention should be made of videographers Dominik Žižka and Jakub Gulyás, who created witty versions of the “commercials” inserted in the score. Still, much of the credit for the eveningʼs success lay in the pit, where Russian-born German conductor Sergey Neller did a brilliant job drawing every note and nuance from the State Opera Orchestra, which is very good in the classical repertoire but not well-versed in modern music. The performance was so good that Shchedrin, in attendance for the premiere, went to the front of the stage after taking a few bows with the cast and made a point of encouraging extra applause for the musicians.

Daunting though it may be, this is an opera that deserves wider exposure. Grounded in tradition, laced with innovation, fearless in confronting unpleasant (and unnervingly relevant) ideas and unrelenting in the demands it makes on both performers and the audience, Lolita is more the work of an auteur than a composer. Plaudits to the National Theater for having the courage to take it on.


****1