The stage of the Mariinsky Concert Hall is marked out by rows of wheat sheaves. The lights go down; two spotlit monks enter the stage, they kneel and cross themselves as the chorus files into the choir seats and then a dozen more monks follow onto the stage. Unseen by most of the audience, Valery Gergiev sneaks into the orchestra pit and an almost inaudible peal of bells is joined by the softest of string ostinati, moving into a deep bass chant from the choir. The lights reveal a female narrator and an older monk, armed with a rope whip for self-flagellation. The music and narration swell, the Russian words for “You are promised to God” ring out. The air of mysticism is nothing short of overwhelming.

What ensues, in Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer, is an intoxicating mixture of choral music, operatic singing, dance and sung storytelling. The story, based on an 1873 novella by Nikolai Leskov, is straight out of the canon of old Russian mystic folk tales, a travelogue of the adventures of Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin as he is condemned by the ghost of an old monk he has killed, is captured by the Tatars, lives as a horsemaster in the house of a Prince, loses his mind to vodka and is eventually redeemed by the mercy-killing of the gypsy girl Grushka, who has seduced Ivan, been sold to the Prince and then rejected.

If the story sounds bizarre on paper, it makes complete and utter sense when set to Shchedrin’s extraordinary score, which moves you irresistibly between sacred, mystic and profane. The orchestral colours are mainly dark, with notable use of alto flutes, but Shchedrin ups the tempo and adds plenty of high register as and when it suits his storytelling purposes. On a few occasions, he bursts out with music of extreme violence, grabbing you by the throat. Under Dmitry Korneyev’s choreography, the dozen dancers can be every bit as violent: their transformation from monks into the Tatars who capture Ivan, and the violence of the Tatar dance which ensues, makes a riveting spectacle.

The storytelling duties are split between the chorus and three singers, who also take on the solo roles. Sergei Aleksashkin just gets the title role of Ivan. Aleksashkin is a Mariinsky veteran, but remains on top form: the voice reaches gravelly depths in the great tradition of Russian bass singing, but is charged with emotion when navigating the upper register. Hearing the Russian language up close sung by that depth of bass voice is a real privilege. Yekaterina Sergeyeva plays Grusha the Gypsy. She is very beautiful, she moves beautifully and her voice can summon up untold reserves of sweetness: the scene in which she seduces Ivan has as much eroticism as anything I’ve ever seen in opera, all done by the power of the voice without a square inch of bare flesh to be seen. From a starting point of “stupid man, falling for a typical gypsy temptress”, I was seduced within seconds.

The other characters that Ivan meets on his travels are all sung by tenor Andrei Popov, who demonstrates wide versatility, switching his voice as often as he switches his costume, anywhere from near-countertenor high as the Flogged Monk to a more standard heroic tenor as the Prince. It’s a third bravura performance.

The staging isn’t unduly complex, but it’s highly effective: as the story unfolds, the sight and sound of the wheat sheaves gradually being trampled down gives a poignant edge to the depiction of the passage of time. A single rope, slung from high up, is used to great effect. While The Enchanted Wanderer isn’t a conventional opera in any shape or form, I don’t really understand why Shchedrin’s publishers describe it as an “Opera for the concert stage” – this is as fully staged as I could ask for.

The result of all these components was that I was utterly gripped, from start to finish, by the fusion of sacred and profane: a great folk yarn vividly told, with an overlay of powerful mysticism. Who would have thought, my Danish neighbour remarked, that Rodion Shchedrin, a premier member of the Soviet old guard, would embrace religion in such a potent way? But the results are unmissable. When the Mariinsky tour this production, if it comes to a city near you, beg, borrow or steal a ticket.


David's press trip was sponsored by the Mariinsky.