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Music: Lenin’s Rockers

4 minute read
Patricia Blake

Moscow sings “Hallelujah ”

The roar throbbing through the rafters of Moscow’s Lenin Komsomol Theater was loud enough to rouse the Soviet Union’s founding father in his Kremlin mausoleum. After two decades of sparring with the Soviet authorities, hard rock had triumphantly taken the Lenin stage. The occasion was the premiere of the country’s first rock opera, Juno and Avos, by Alexei Rybnikov, a popular composer of movie scores. In addition to guitars, violins, cellos, drum and a chorus of 16, Rybnikov called for electronic instruments—including a Multimoog synthesizer and a Roland paraphonic—rarely used before in the U.S.S.R. The opera was a bold blend of hard-rock rhythms, shimmering folk melodies and traditional Russian Orthodox Church chants.

The plot of the opera was as surprising as the score. In this era of deepening freeze in Soviet-U.S. relations, it is based on the true story of a Russian-American romance. Andrei Voznesensky, the Soviet Union’s famed avant garde poet, thought of the idea for the production when he read about the historic love affair during a trip to California.

Collaborating with Director Mark Zakharov, Voznesensky wrote the libretto in verse.

According to the poet’s text, Russian Nobleman Nikolai Rezanov sailed into San Francisco harbor in 1806 intending to trade with California’s Spanish colonizers. Instead he fell in love with Concha, the daughter of the commandant of San Francisco. As Rezanov’s ships Juno and Avos waited, he set out to woo the 16-year-old beauty. For his seduction scene, Bolshoi Ballet Choreographer Vladimir Vasiliev designed a pas de deux that was conspicuously erotic by stuffy Soviet standards. Yelena Shanina (Concha), a Goldie Hawn lookalike, and Nikolai Karachentsev (Rezanov), a dark, dour figure, embraced on the brightly lit, transparent Plexiglas stage. When the nightgown-clad Concha wrapped her legs around Rezanov, he fell avidly upon her. The house lights darkened as the moan of the electronic strings reached a crescendo.

Such sexual motifs were contrasted both visually and musically with emblems of faith. A bishop in sumptuous vestments made an appearance. Dancers knelt as a figure representing Our Lady of Kazan, the Madonna pictured on one of Russia’s holiest icons, glided mysteriously onstage carrying the Christ Child.

The rockers’ driving, heavy beat sub sided. The roar of the synthesizers, the wailings of the guitars and the tom-tom tripping of the drummer were hushed as the chorus picked up a folk tune that sweetly blended, with no perceptible transition, into an Orthodox hymn.

The first act made clear that the show would be Moscow’s biggest smash in years, enjoying an open-ended run as part of the Lenin Komsomol’s permanent repertory. On opening night the 810-seat theater was jammed. The elite audience, which had received free tickets, cheered lustily, giving Rybnikov and Voznesensky standing ovations.

At intermission, actors, dancers and musicians sought out the opinion of Rodion Shchedrin, the U.S.S.R.’s best known composer of modern music. He declared that he had tried to talk his friend Voznesensky out of getting involved with something as vulgar as a rock opera. Shchedrin, who is chairman of the powerful Russian Composers Union, then explained he had listened to a tape of the music. His verdict: “I fell in love with it.” Soviet cultural bureaucrats were not as enthusiastic. They excised musical numbers that they regarded as too religious before giving permission for last week’s performance.

Predictably, the second act brought tragedy to the cross-cultural affair.

When Concha’s parents refused to allow the match on religious grounds, Rezanov returned to Russia, vowing: “I shall wring consent from my Tsar, the Pope, your father!” But on the homeward trek across Siberia, the nobleman died on the icy steppes, causing his disconsolate Concha to become “San Francisco’s first nun.”

The heavy allegory was there for all to brood upon. As Rezanov succumbed on stage, a narrator said: “He tried to unite Russia and America; the adventure was not successful.” With a nod to the prostrate body, he added: “Thanks for trying.”

An all-cast finale, combining rock and religious themes, summed up with a jubilant Hallelujah Love! — By Patricia Blake.

Reported by Bruce W. Nelan/Moscow

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