Shchedrin’s Lolita in Prague: despicable and brutal, and turgid

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Shchedrin, Lolita: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Prague State Opera, Kühn’s Children’s Choir / Sergey Neller (conductor). Estates Theater Prague, 8.1.2020. (SS)

Prague State Opera’s Lolita (c) Patrik Borecký

Director – Sláva Daubnerová
Sets – Boris Kudlička
Costumes – Natalia Kitamikado
Lighting – Daniel Tesař
Video art – Dominik Žižka, Jakub Gulyás
Chorus master – Alfred Melichar
Chorus master of the Kühn’s Children’s Choir – Petr Louženský
Dramaturgy – Jitka Slavíková

Humbert Humbert – Petr Sokolov
Lolita – Pelageya Kurennaya
Clare Quilty – Alexander Kravets
Charlotte – Veronika Hajnová
Mrs Chatfield, Miss Pratt – Kateřina Jalovcová
Mr Chatfield, Quilty’s fellow drinker – Ivo Hrachovec
Neighbor from the east – Eliška Gattringerová
Music teacher, maid – Sylva Čmugrová
Sacristan, Quilty’s fellow drinker – Václav Sibera
Red pullover – Martin Matoušek
Two girls on roadside billboards – Jana Sýkorová, Lucie Hájková

In 2014, Ivo van Hove created a stage adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It received largely positive reviews at its premiere in Amsterdam. By the time the production reached the attention of UK and US critics with tour performances in Manchester and New York, van Hove’s choice of material by an icon of the libertarian right started to come under fire. Even the Financial Times, hardly a forum for anti-capitalist critique, branded Rand’s book as ‘noxious’ and lamented the director’s lack of critical distance from it, noting ‘real affinities’ between him and Rand’s protagonist.

Van Hove’s Fountainhead and its reception came to my mind a few times during the Prague State Opera’s production of Rodion Shchedrin’s Lolita. The Russian composer’s 1994 adaptation is the only opera based on Nabokov’s book and saw performances in just a handful of places before Prague gave the work its fourth production last year. As with The Fountainhead, the question lingering over this second-run performance was why this work, and why in 2020?

The libretto of Lolita, which Shchedrin wrote himself, largely sticks to the events of the book but does away with its sparklingly eloquent prose and rampant manipulation of the reader. Skimming through the novel before the performance, I found Humbert Humbert a thoroughly unpleasant character to spend time with regardless of Nabokov’s writing, but Shchedrin’s libretto and score leave no room for doubt. ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, writes Nabokov, but it would be impossible to romanticize this opera’s malevolent though drab protagonist in the same way as the book, to feel sympathy for Humbert or construe the narrative as a tragic love story.

Sláva Daubnerová’s production only underlines this further, showing Humbert as both a monster and a middle-class bore. His shocking acts of abuse are sociopathic, but his personality isn’t. And though several acts are committed, they are short and late scenes in the context of the opera’s three-hour running time, while the bulk of the action is taken up by Humbert obsessively talking about what he intends to do to Lolita, and this is all expressed very woodenly by Petr Sokolov. If he isn’t born evil, which the bland characterization implies, why does he do what he does? Daubnerová was disinclined to contemplate this question and it wasn’t entirely clear why. Maybe she simply likes Nabokov’s Lolita in the same way that van Hove is a fan of Ayn Rand, though it didn’t seem like it. What was similar to van Hove, and the reason why his Fountainhead came to mind, was a dogged indifference to the reception and controversies that have surrounded the material since its publication.

Rather more thought (and love) went into Boris Kudlička’s revolving set, which is an adoring tribute to 1950s Americana with white picket fences, an embarrassment of floral patterns, flashing neon lights, vintage gas pumps, and a Chevy that’s spectacularly hoisted up into the fly tower (concealed just as Humbert conceals Charlotte’s accident from Lolita). In a neat piece of design and direction, an army of Lolita doubles come crawling like zombies out of the bath and from underneath the kitchen sink to haunt Humbert’s daydreams.

Petr Sokolov’s robust tenor handled the demands of the part well, but the woodenness of his Humbert wasn’t just a problem for the production; it also made his colorless performance quite boring to watch. Lolita has an operatic antecedent of sorts in Lulu and Shchedrin’s vocal writing indeed makes this connection. The production, in turn, spells out in black and white: when Lolita’s mother says she’s a brat, she behaves like a brat, when Humbert calls her lascivious, she acts dirty. This recalls Lulu’s comment about never appearing to the world as anything other than what she’s perceived to be, and it’s to Pelageya Kurennaya’s credit that she established herself convincingly as her own character, supported by bright and clear singing, despite continually being a projection for Humbert’s depraved desires and her mother’s expectations. As Lolita’s suffering mother, Veronika Hajnová put in an assured performance of a woman whose dignity is subjected to brutal assault. Clare Quilty becomes a grotesque caricature in this adaptation, which Alexander Kravets enjoyed wallowing in, and perhaps too much.

Shchedrin’s score was in capable hands with Sergey Neller, and the orchestra gave a spotless performance of a score that’s a hard slog. What ultimately sank Lolita as an operatic experience wasn’t the equivocal production but the somber sameness and drudgery of Shchedrin’s music. In its best moments, it nods in the direction of Britten and Henze, but neither of these two would have written such dull vocal lines. Humbert’s phrases are long, often with each note held longer than the last, and the final note held longest of all. Musically, it conveys his desire to never let go of Lolita. But three hours of this is pretty hard going on the ear.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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