Another look at Rasputin's epic life

Times Staff Writer

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, a Siberian peasant who masked debauchery in the robes of spiritual devotion and whose influence on the court of Czar Nicholas II helped lead to the Russian Revolution, was an operatic figure if ever there was one. He was said to possess hypnotic eyes, and he seduced women in St. Petersburg society with the pickup line that you can't be saved if you haven't sinned. He was so physically powerful that his Russian murderers fed him enough poison to kill a bear, shot him and stabbed him, and still he fought back. Finally, on that cold December night in 1916, they threw him into the icy Neva River, where he drowned.

Maybe Rasputin was simply too operatic, truth being stranger than fiction, but only now has he reached the lyric stage. In a remarkable coincidence worthy of one of this mystic's loopy pronouncements, two new Rasputin operas premiered last week. First came Deborah Drattell's "Nicholas and Alexandra," with Placido Domingo as Rasputin at Los Angeles Opera. Five days later, on Friday in Helsinki, Finnish National Opera unveiled Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Rasputin," starring the famed Finnish bass Matti Salminen in the title role.

While Drattell's opera was presented with surprisingly little hoopla for a new work and turned out to be a great disappointment, expectations ran extremely high for Rautavaara's opera, which was commissioned to honor the composer's 75th birthday next month. The most celebrated Finnish composer since Sibelius, he has great international renown and almost cult-like following. In Finland, he is a national figure in this musically sophisticated and highly literate country. (Esa-Pekka Salonen, like many other Finnish composers, studied with him.) In advance of "Rasputin," Rautavaara was widely featured in the Finnish press; the opera was advertised on the sides of Helsinki buses; Finnish television news covered the premiere.

Opera is something of a national pastime in Finland, where several new works are produced every year throughout the country (in 2000, there were a record 15). But this time both the subject matter and the composer, whose 10 operas include a probing study of Vincent van Gogh, proved especially engrossing to the Finns. At a news conference before the opera, Rautavaara noted that the Soviet Union had been such a threatening presence that only now is Finland ready for an opera about Rasputin. The general director of Finnish Opera, Erkki Korhonen, added that the theme of religious influence over politics has continued relevance, pointing out that fundamentalist Christians have the ear of George W. Bush.

In the end, though, Rautavaara's popularity, his great skill as a composer and librettist (he has written all his own librettos), Finnish Opera's ongoing commitment to new work (it tries to do one new Finnish opera every season) and the intriguing subject matter all worked against "Rasputin." While this intelligent opera, which includes some powerful and deeply moving music and was compellingly performed, proved vastly superior to "Nicholas and Alexandra," it suffers from some of the same problems.

Like Drattell, Rautavaara tailored his Rasputin for the talents of a great singer, and both Domingo and Salminen play the sleazy mystic with more than a touch of heroism. Domingo's Rasputin has a bit of Otello in him; Salminen's Rasputin is more fleshed-out but sounds like the bass' authoritative Boris Godunov.

"Rasputin" was performed in Finnish with projected English titles, and Rautavaara's fluid libretto, full of penetrating monologues, is a far more professional job than Nicholas von Hoffman's prolix, panoramic "Nicholas." Even so, it succumbs to too much narrative explication. Unlike in his "Vincent," which is a striking meditation on Van Gogh's spirituality and artistic crises, Rautavaara offers straightforward narrative history in "Rasputin," as if the story, so important to Finns, still requires explanation.

One of the most impressive aspects of Rautavaara's music is his ability to combine intellectual modernism with enthralling religiosity. He writes brilliantly and originally for orchestra and has a real flair for the voice. His choral masterpiece, "Vigilia," which he quotes in "Rasputin," reverberates with transcendental intensity. Those qualities are not lacking in the score for "Rasputin," and I am sure that further listening will reveal interesting details. But the music also has all the hallmarks of a rush job by a pro. The opera was commissioned only two years ago, and it was written in the midst of Rautavaara's fulfilling other major commissions, including a clarinet concerto for Richard Stoltzman and the National Symphony Orchestra.

For all the magnificent sounds coming from the pit, the frenzied chanting of the Khlysti (Rasputin's self-flagellating sect), and Salminen's profound basso introspections, there is something pat about the opera's narrative progress. Both Rasputin's spiritual passion and his lasciviousness are offered more as case studies than operatic extravagance. Rautavaara's Rasputin goes after the ladies more vividly than does Drattell's. As if to show the degree of decadence in St. Petersburg society, Rautavaara explored the homosexuality of the noblemen who wooed the same countess while plotting Rasputin's murder. But he never made it much fun.

Directed by Vilppu Kiljunen, "Rasputin" did not get a better production than "Nicholas and Alexandra." Again there were historical costumes, movable walls and conventional operatic gestures. But it did get a terrific performance, beginning with the enthusiastic conducting of Mikko Franck. The up-and-coming young Finnish conductor (who will make his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut in the 2004-05 season) told the news conference that Rautavaara is his favorite composer, living or dead; his performance indicated that he was telling the truth.

Not only was Salminen in full command of his role, but so were baritone Jorma Hynninen, a tormented Nicholas, and soprano Lilli Paasikivi, an incantatory Alexandra. The rest of the cast, like that of "Nicholas and Alexandra," was large, and it was impressive.

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