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Sing, memory

Linbury Studio, Covent Garden
11/09/2002 -  
Nigel Osborne: The electrification of the Soviet Union
Gwion Thomas (Boris Pasternak), Jeremy Huw Williams (Serezha Spectorsky), Valerie Reid (Natasha), Jonathan May (Fardybassov/Mr Frestln/Sashka's husband/servant/ticket collector), Marianne Andersen (Anna Arild), Jennifer Rhys-Davies (Mrs Frestln), Sally Silver (Sashka)

Music Theatre Wales Ensemble

Michael Rafferty (conductor), Michael McCarthy (director)

The original version of Nigel Osborne's opera The electrification of the Soviet Union was performed at Glyndebourne in October 1987, during what turned out to be the last couple of years of the Soviet Union's existence. The title, though, is symbolic rather than descriptive: the opera reflects the mainly erotic experience of a young writer at the fringe of events in the years immediately before the October revolution. Any resemblance to Dr Zhivago is not co-incidental, and the subject is ripely operatic. The music is also accessible, built around songs that are often very beautiful, in a style that, while undoubtedly of its time, appropriately enough suggests something between Tchaikovsky and Weill. The Glyndebourne audience (admittedly not, in October, the premium festival crowd) should have loved it. Yet The electrification of the Soviet Union disappeared without trace until this year, when Music Theatre Wales commissioned Osborne to produce a chamber orchestration for a touring production.

The intimacy of the opera -- it consists mainly of scenes between Serezha, Pasternak's alter ego, and the various women in his life -- is ideally suited to the compact, lucid orchestration. Perhaps the songs, already strong with the words of Craig Raine's superb libretto in Pushkinesque verse, become more like cabaret numbers than operatic arias: this is particularly true of the Serezha's earthy, poetic description of the body of Sashka, his beloved prostitute, and of Sashka's account of her sexual downfall. But the whole opera is less a narrative than a dream within a dream, where emotionally formative situations following in free association. Pasternak, at some time after 1920, reflects on the revolution and evokes Serezha's visit to his sister in late 1916, the moment when his disillusion first crystallized in his rejection of the proletarian student she idolizes. But Serezha in 1916 remembers the events of 1914 that sowed the seeds of this response: his feelings about his kind but pretentious bourgeois employers, the Frestlns, their resentful governess Anna, traumatized by the death of her husband, and the affectionate Sashka, bullied by her drunken husband and the police. A brief epilogue set in 1920, in which Anna has become a hard line apparatchik who considers destroying Serezha because of his sympathy with the Frestlns, anchors the earlier events to the Soviet Union of the title, and of the opera's 1987 present. But the historical background, always present, is also always in the deep structure rather than on the surface, adding a colour of dread to the elegiac account of lost youth.

Music Theatre Wales' minimal touring production provided just enough framework for a first-rate cast to deliver the full dramatic impact. Gwion Thomas as Pasternak, notionally writing the work at a desk downstage left, framed the performance with a "revolutionary song" and stage managed the events as they unfolded, his powerful voice implicit in his silent presence. Jeremy Huw Williams as Serezha was febrile and lyrical, dramatically effective as well as musically, in a performance that suggested a less idealistic version of Ned Keene's Belinsky in The coast of Utopia. His women were all strikingly portrayed, especially Sally Silver as the fleshly Sashka and Marianne Andersen as the calcified Anna. Jonathan May, struggling against flu, did sterling service in a number of small roles.

Michael Rafferty and the orchestra delivered an effective performance.

The production, first done at the Cheltenham Festival in July, continues touring until 1 December.

H.E. Elsom



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