It is probably unique for the composer to take a curtain call at the premiere of an opera at the Edinburgh Festival. It is rare anywhere and the only instance this reviewer can recall is Ligeti being booed off a London stage after the premiere of Le Grand Macabre - a work notorious for its setting on the M1 motorway and unprintable last words.
Unlike Ligeti, Shchedrin was greeted with cheers and thunderous applause from a full house. The applause was more than justified, not merely for the composer but for the Mariinsky Orchestra and soloists who had filled the theatre with glorious sound.
The concept of an opera designed for the concert platform rather than a stage production is also rare and at first seems a contradiction in terms. This work, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered there in 2002, eliminates the problem.
Based on a book by the 19th century Russian author Nikolay Leskov (also the source for the Shostakovich opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), this version of the folktale would face insurmountable problems in a staged version.
The story is simple: the wandering life of Ivan, a man of many occupations - actor, horse trader, coachman, soldier, Tatar prisoner, and servant to a prince. While a servant, he falls in love with the Gipsy Grusha; the prince buys her for him but falls in love with her himself. Eventually deserted by the prince in favour of a wealthy wife, Grusha seeks out her former lover Ivan, makes him swear to carry out her request. She begs him to kill her, he pushes her over a high cliff and, in penance, becomes a monk.
The three soloists gave carefully shaded performances but it was often confusing for the audience. The difficulty of consulting the libretto, printed in the original Russian and English, in the programme under the dimmed lighting, was exacerbated by the two male soloists switching repeatedly between roles as characters in the story and storytellers narrating it.
Frequent contributions from the chorus eased the flow of the story and added to the drama. Gergiev conducted sensitively, controlling soloists, chorus, orchestra and individual players impeccably.
The music itself could not be called outstanding but it was evocative and perhaps peculiarly Russian in nature. Redolent with references to Orthodox Church motifs and traces of old Russian folk songs, there was ample use of a large percussion section (including the almost inevitable bells).
There was wildness and an oriental slant in the Tatar captivity scene, bucolic touches in the Russian Shepherds' orchestral interlude, passion from Grushka and the Prince, realism from Volga ship sirens, and lamentation in the postlude.
It may be some time before there is another UK performance to follow this premiere, but the Mariinsky gave us an evening to savour and remember.
Performance August 26 at 19:15
Copyright Iain Gilmour August 2008