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Culture Reviews
Lolita /By R.Schedrin/
Novaya Opera Theatre 
Perm Opera on the stage of Novaya Opera
By Neil McGowan
One inevitably wonders about the reasoning behind turning one of the C20th’s most infamous novellas into an opera? Would it be for the baffling interplay between the supposed narrator, Humbert Humbert, and his self-created persona in his own story? Would it be to explore the interpersonal relationships in a bizarre love-triangle involving a man, plus a mother and daughter? Or would it, more unfortunately, be a rather cynically prurient ploy to sell seats to a modern opera if the music alone won’t drag them in? The jury may be out, but I strongly feel the last has validity – the real issues in this “Lolita” go unexplored.

Nabokov’s narrator warns us, at the very opening of the novel, that he is a liar, and that nothing he says can be trusted. He instances his abilities in lying and deception before the story starts, so that we are in doubt of capabilities he boasts from his childhood onwards. This, of course, should inform any half-intelligent reader that the narrator is capable not only of lying to the other characters – he may also be lying to us? In fact, we only have his word for it that any of the events occur. Perhaps he’s a paedophile fantasist? There’s a potent theory that the whole book is a game of cat-and-mouse between narrator and reader, not a whodunnit so much as a did-he-do-any-of-it-at-all? The omission of this ambiguity in Schedrin’s operatic version – which takes every word of the novella as unambiguous truth – is the fatal flaw in this ambitious and lengthy work. For example, when the mother finds Humbert’s love-letters to her own daughter, she flies into a rage – a difficulty for Humbert’s seductions which is conveniently solved, in the novella, when she “accidentally” falls under a car when crossing the road at his side. Humbert, of course, never specifically tells us that he pushed her? But he has told us that he is a liar, and that we must never trust what we says. Yet in the opera she is run-down whilst Humbert is at home indoors, and a flunkey (Humbert has a flunkey? How?) arrives with the bad news – at which Humbert weeps with emotion undisplayed in the book. To state so categorically that he’s not guilty of a murder he very likely committed, and to change the scene to not only remove his opportunity for the killing but also provide him with an alibi (the flunkey who can testify to his whereabouts) sabotages the storyline entirely.

Schedrin finds the defendant definitively “not guilty”. Whereas Act II should properly have the frenetic road-movie pace of a post-killing spree of booze and under-age sex, the musical pace doesn’t change – Act II seems monotonously long, and the audience was obviously restive. There’s one volume, one texture, one instrumentation from start to end, and there is only so long this can hold interest. Even an audience almost entirely composed from Musical Moscow’s literati were obviously fed-up, and most were busy fleeing the theatre as soon as the final beat fell. The sex, of course, is only barely hinted-at – it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel to imagine it is full of sex. There’s far more sex in Lady Macbeth Of Mtensk or Le Grand Macabre. Although Lolita is not really a Russian story at all (it was written in English, when Nabokov had already moved to America, and is entirely set in the USA) this is a peculiarly Russian view of it. This one-soundworld-fits-all approach is a pity, since the atonal murk of Act One sits well as a background for the emotional exploitation and psychological machinations of the action. Sadly, it is entirely inappropriate for the adrenalin buzz of Act Two, and rather than finding any forward pace, tails off into self-indulgent and eminently cuttable perorations that serve the action poorly.

In the title role, Tatiana Kuinji excels. Nominated for a Golden Mask (she already took one for Lulu in 2002) this is a titanic performance on every level. The acting is so perfect as the early-teens Lolita that you hardly notice her effortless stunning singing – she hops, and bounces barefoot, squeals and pouts with frightening accuracy. But this is also singing to die for, as is the careful and superbly-achieved performance of Alexander Agapov as Humbert. “Quilty” is set for a high tenorino, and Sergey Vlasov coped admirably with the punishing tessitura. Tatiana Kaminskaya made a three-dimensional character out of the underparted role of Lolita’s mother.

Valery Platonov directed in the pit, working tenaciously to wring interest from a largely featureless score of dull harmonic clusters. To throw so much energy into such unrewarding material seems a terrible waste. Nevertheless, the musical preparation of the score was magnificent, even if it largely went unappreciated (except, perhaps, by the composer, who was present for the performance - along with his more famous wife, the legendary ballerina Maya Plesetskaya).

The production is entirely new for the Perm Opera – a troupe which acquired the nickname The Opera Laboratory of the Country in the Soviet era. Lolita was first heard in a production for the Swedish National Opera, who staged it in 1992 with Liv Gustafson in the title role. This elegant and striking production has been devised by Perm Opera’s artistic director, Georgi Isaakian, and designed by Elena Solovyeva. Isaakian directs the action well, and nobly follows the composer’s intentions as best he can. Sadly, the flaws in the piece are in-built, and in the unlikely event that this piece stays in the repertoire, it will need some extensive musical cuts in Act II, optimally some reorchestration to relieve the desperate textural tedium, and a stage-director willing and able to reintroduce essential plotline details of the original story. As it is, Schedrin should thank his lucky stars that his interests were served by a richly talented cast, a superb leading lady, and a production which distracted the audience from a score that’s more worthy than worthwhile.

Lolita is nominated for the Golden Mask Awards (Russia’s national awards for Music and Theatre achievement) – the results will be announced on April 12.

08.04.04
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