Dostoevsky's obsession with physical and mental pain, coupled with his relentlessly emphatic style, means that The Brothers Karamazov is not the ideal book to curl up with. Nor is this 900-page emotional odyssey ideal fodder for opera: two operas have been drawn from it, but neither has stood the test of time.
Now comes a shot by the Russian composer Alexander Smelkov, whose links with his current conductor go back to 1974. In that year Smelkov's diploma piece was conducted by a fellow student at the conservatoire named Valery Gergiev. I caught Smelkov's opera, which recently premiered in St Petersburg, in a concert performance in Rotterdam; on 1 February, Gergiev and the Mariinsky will bring it to London's Barbican.
Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were among the first thinkers to hail Dostoyevsky's novel, but many others have debated its message. At one level it embodies 19th-century Russia's furious clash of ideas: between faith and reason, Christianity and atheism, conservatism and nihilism. If one key image is of Jesus coming back to earth and being sent packing by a Jesuit priest, others turn on the saint/sinner paradox which pervades Karamazov family life. And its narrative structure adumbrates that of Kurosawa's film Rashomon, in that we are left guessing as to which of the three protagonists committed the pivotal murder. But what fires the plot is gut-emotional stuff: filial rage, sexual obsession, and the trauma of losing a child.
Smelkov focused on big ideas. And from the opening his symphonic stance is clear: this is a defiantly tonal work. But within this traditional frame, he conjures up some wonderful musical moments: I shall not forget the male-voice octet, accompanied by bells and hushed double-basses, which reflects the hero Alyosha's dream. Smelkov is a master-orchestrator.
If Gergiev and his company perform at the Barbican as they did in Rotterdam, we're in for a treat. The tenors Vasily Gorshkov and Avgust Amonov were complemented by baritone Vladislav Sulimsky, soprano Elena Nebera, and mezzo Natalia Evstafieva, plus orchestral playing of incendiary brilliance.