“Crime and Punishment” has been made into an opera.
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote “Crime and Punishment” as he struggled to pay off debts and support his family. Perhaps out of financial necessity, the 1866 novel about a murderous St. Petersburg student was completed in only one year.
But no such necessity motivated the author of an eclectic new rock opera version of “Crime and Punishment”. And that’s partly why it took Edward Artemiev, soundtrack composer for 150 films including Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi thriller “Solaris”, 28 years to complete the 2 1/2-hour score.
Artemiev finally unveiled a $200,000 recording of the work last week in Moscow. In the audience was Sir Tim Rice, the British lyricist for “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita”, who is said to be planning to stage “Crime and Punishment” on Broadway.
“I began with a lot of energy, but Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky] is such a grand figure that he sank me to the ground”, Artemiev said in an interview at his home on Sunday. “I had to stop and start many times because I could not express his genius adequately”.
Dostoevsky has long been a magnet for composers of dramatic opera. The young Sergei Prokofiev borrowed the plot of “The Gambler” for his first serious opera in 1917, and a 1930 version of “The House of the Dead” was Czech composer Leos Janacek’s last work.
Meanwhile a new Bollywood musical, “Saawariya”, or “Beloved”, based on the short story “White Nights”, is set to make a splash in India this month.
There has never been a large-scale musical production of “Crime and Punishment”, however, and as such Artemiev’s project has generated an intense buzz.
“Artemiev is the founder of Russian electronic music, and I'm interested in any project he does”, said Ilya Ovchinnikov, a music critic at “Gazeta” newspaper.
“I like that this project evolved - the music that Artemiev started with is completely different to the finished product. The result is a real collision of genres, from rock to classical music, with choirs and orchestras, synthesizers and all kinds of traditional instruments. It’s truly contemporary opera”.
Dostoevsky’s novel focuses on Raskolnikov, a student who murders a miserly pawnbroker and her sister and becomes racked with guilt. The idea of putting this difficult tale to music came from film director Andrei Konchalovsky, who made 1989’s “Tango and Cash” and the recent “Gloss”. Konchalovsky said in an interview that he had always wanted to turn the psychological drama into an opera, and first approached Artemiev in 1978.
“I think it's a very rock-n-roll story, so I wanted to make a rock opera out of it”, he recalled. “I had worked with Artemiev before and knew his style and taste”.
At that time, Artemiev had already established a name for itself as an innovative composer of film scores. He met Tarkovsky in the spring of 1970, and in the fall was invited to write the music for “Solaris”. His soundtrack weaves Bach’s chorale prelude for the organ, “I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, with eerie synthesizer chords and recordings made in forests and cities.
Upon receiving a call from Konchalovsky, Artemiev said he accepted the project immediately. But although both Konchalovsky and Artemiev knew “Crime and Punishment” intimately, turning it into an opera proved challenging. Artemiev repeatedly gave it up to work on other projects.
“Putting an epic novel into a nutshell is a big task”, Konchalovsky said. “If we didn’t have to make sacrifices, then we would have to stage three or four operas”.
He added that he wasn’t a harsh taskmaster. “I didn’t want to disturb the genius that is Artemiev. The only thing that I wanted to enforce was that the singers had a rock background”.
Artemiev went on to write the soundtracks for Konchalovsky’s 1979 film “Sibiriade” which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. In the late 1980s, he developed a relationship with Nikita Mikhalkov and composed the music for “Burnt by the Sun”, a critically acclaimed masterpiece that won an Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1994.
“Crime and Punishment”, though, remained, in the back of his mind.
In 1998, when Artemiev was almost 60, Konchalovsky called him from his home in Los Angeles.
“He said to me, “If you don’t drop all your other work right now, all your other orders, and start on this, you won’t do it. You are getting old, the energy you have now will fade, and you will live out the end of your years with regret”. This had an enormous effect on me”, Artemiev said.
Artemiev worked intensely on the opera for two years at his studio, which is located in his apartment in a northern Moscow tower block. He described the period as one of the most difficult, but most rewarding, of his life. He anguished over scenes, in particular that in which Raskolnikov has a nightmare about peasants flogging a horse to death. “Every time I thought about it, it made me nauseated. I left it for last, until I was emotionally prepared for it”, he said.
By 2002 the music was ready, but there was no money to record it, and the project was again put on the backburner. Artemiev approached Alexander Vainshtein, producer of Moscow musicals “Metro” and “Notre Dame” in 2003.
“I heard it and thought it would be a crime and a punishment not to do it”, Vainshtein said, laughing at his pun. At that stage the music was 3 1/2-hours long; Vainshtein insisted it was shortened to make it more palatable to audiences. He invested $200,000 into the opera, and provided a studio at “Mosfilm” for the large-scale recording.
The Russian State Symphony Orchestra of Cinematography, a gypsy ensemble called “Roses on Snow” and the Russian National Orchestra all took part. So did a rock band assembled by Vainshtein.
The opening act, like much of the opera, is an intriguing melding of genres. Raskolnikov sings to himself that God has placed trust in him, and that he must do right by Jesus, and is accompanied by an organ and two acoustic guitars. A synthesizer in the background lends an Oriental flavor to the scene.
Rousing Russian folk-style singing features later in the recording, and is paired with harmonicas and electronic beats.
While the core of the story remains intact, several characters were cut, including Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, while the role of Raskolnikov’s best friend, Razumikhin, was abbreviated.
Rice’s studio refused to comment on the project, but Artemiev, Vainshtein and Konchalovsky all said that discussions on interpreting “Crime and Punishment” for Broadway are taking place. Rice is currently working with Konchalovsky and Artemiev on a movie version of “The Nutcracker” that will star Nathan Lane.
If Broadway falls through, there are other options; negotiations are underway with the Bolshoi Theater. A production will pose a number of technical problems, however, Vainshtein said. “We will need to put the choir in the same room as heavy metal bands, and just getting the space to rehearse for six weeks will be a problem. It’s plausible that not all the music will be performed live”.
Vainshtein estimated that it would cost at least $3 million to $4 million to stage the opera in Moscow.
Artemiev said he doesn't care what happens with the project now he has completed it.
“I had this portrait my whole life”, he said pointing to a gold-framed painting of Dostoevsky in his studio. “It was from my aunt, and I never knew why I had it. But there was a greater purpose in it. I was supposed to do this opera”.
(“The Moscow Times” 09-15.11.2007)