18 Dec 2005


In fall 2003, Los Angeles Opera opened its season with Deborah Dratell’s Nicholas and Alexandra, with libretto by Nicholas von Hoffman. At that time, company director Placido Domingo, who took on the juicy role of Rasputin, announced that the production would be filmed and prepared for eventual DVD release.

That didn’t happen, perhaps, if one may dare to assume, because Nicholas and Alexandra received such scathing reviews. But a DVD has appeared with the central characters of the czar, czarina, and the Mad Monk, in an opera that premiered at almost exactly the same time as the Dratell work. Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Rasputin, performed at the Finnish National Opera, doesn’t have to be compared to the woe-begotten Nicholas and Alexandra to merit praise. The DVD captures an intense, riveting evening of dramatic musical theater and a performance by Matti Salminen in the lead role that manages to capture all the seedy charisma and ecstatic lechery of this fascinating figure. If opera-lovers sadly cannot expect a world-tour of this great artist performing in a fine opera written with him in mind, they must at least obtain the DVD and settle in to experience Salminen’s brilliant work in a operatic stage work of genuine achievement.

The opera only covers Rasputin’s life from the time he entered the life of Russian royal family as they desperately sought relief for their hemophiliac son. He is seen as a dangerous influence by the established order, represented in the opera by two men seeking to marry the czar’s daughter Irina — Dimitri and Felix, whose rivalry is muted by the fact of their own homosexual relationship. As Rasputin’s influence grows, desperation sets in, and finally the Monk’s enemies can find no other option than to poison, stab, and shoot him to death. The conflagration to come reveals itself in a dream of the czar’s, as flames fill the stage.

Rautavaara’s opera, therefore, takes its place in the Faustian tradition as an innovative portrait of a malevolent but charismatic figure and the havoc he wreaks in a society of false piety. And like Mephistopheles, Rasputin makes for a great role for a deep, resonant voice (Domingo’s in the Dratell work was, of course, set higher — if not in true tenor range).

Salminen revels in the both the role’s musical challenges and the character’s schizophrenic nature. For like all truly great characters, Rasputin isn’t faking either his religious ecstasy or degrading himself with his libidinous rampages — they are integral parts of his Falstaffian nature, the ying and yang of a life force beyond understanding or control. The character’s first set piece – a long, dark meditation translated as Evil will sink in the water — quickly establishes Rasputin’s ominously attractive personality, and Rautavaara’s music, while not conventionally melodic, makes for a trance-inducing lullaby, and the audience falls under the Monk’s spell just as the Czarina and her ailing son do.

Like the best opera composers, Rautavaara sees to it that all the major roles get their time in the limelight. Lilli Paasikivi’s czarina begins the opera with a desperate plea for someone to save her son’s life, recalling in its minor key drama Butterfly’s final aria to her “piccolo iddio.” Jorma Hynninen’s Nicholas comes across as a weak man but a loving father, concerned that his daughter Irina might be about to marry one of two very wrong men, while allowing his wife to have her way in terms of Rasputin’s growing influence. Jyrki Anttila (Felix) and Gabriel Suovanen (Dimitri) both exude proper amounts of elegant sleaze as lovers who see Irina as a ticket to power, and Rasputin as the greatest threat to their ambition.

In three acts, the opera runs about 2 and half hours, so with two intermissions probably required, it would be a substantial, and probably expensive, proposition to stage. But this original production has much to recommend it, as smoothly moving walls slide into formulations to quickly signify shifting locations, and the lighting and costuming are of consistently high standards. Hannu Lindholm designed the production and Vilppu Kiljunen directed.

The production of new operas seems to be increasing, which, while healthy by most any measure, also means that some good works can be swept away by the next tide of newer works. Opera houses the world over would do very well to check out this Ondine release and realize that here is a new opera of potent drama and searing musicality, and if Matti Salminen is available, what more could be wanted? Anyone without the patience — formidable, indeed — to await that development should acquire this Ondine DVD soon.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy