The Satanic verses

Decapitation, sodomy and defecation at the ENO: whatever possessed Alfred Schnittke to write such an opera?

Alfred Schnittke is no stranger to having to break off from a project he holds dear. When Yuri Lyubimov abandoned plans for staging Dostoevsky's The Devils and Goethe's Faust, his music collaborator Schnittke's imagination would find no repose as it scanned "the unfathomability of the demonic" - the words are the composer's. The Dostoevsky became the fragmented Music for an Imaginary Play; and Schnittke deserted his sketches based on Goethe's Faust only when he realised his conception would take a week to perform.

He then came upon a copy of the original Faust text, dating from 1587. He set the closing chapters, depicting Faust's grisly end, for the 1983 Vienna Festival. Only after this Faust Cantata was performed did Schnittke feel impelled to use the 1587 cautionary tale as the basis for a future opera.

In 1988, The History of Dr Johann Faustus was but a prayerful hope. Schnittke put his sketches aside; the music was being composed entirely in his head. He knew how the opera should be shaped, and knew exactly where the irrevocable point in Faust's decision-making would come. This would mark the only break in the opera - a break that must leave us numb with shock. He also conceived a new character, Mephistophila, an antiphonal feminine infernal spirit.

Earlier, an outpouring of major works had reached a mature crest. 1985 saw the completion of the Choir Concerto, String Trio and Viola Concerto; and he had composed much of his First Cello Concerto and Peer Gynt (for the Hamburg Ballet) when he suffered his first stroke. When he recovered enough to be able to resume work, his musical tentacles were venturing forth on a musical and poetic phenomenon he terms Klangschatten - extensions of shadow-like sound that "we do not perceive consciously but are listening in on unawares". The origins of this sound-world can be found in some of the composer's film scores, which number more than 60.

This "shadow-sound" is a crucial aspect of Schnittke's straining to hear a world beyond our knowing. The philosopher Kant intimated the possibility of this world, while insisting that it was not within our capability to prove its existence. Nevertheless, Schnittke's preoccupations oscillate precisely on the boundary peering into this domain.

Musically, shadow extensions serve as many-layered, inspired sound-worlds in every work I have mentioned so far. But in his opera Life with an Idiot, they have a diametrically opposite effect: here they hem in and smother the spirit.

How did this opera, to be heard now in different opera houses throughout this country, come about? In brief, Schnittke decided a year or so after hearing Victor Erofeyev read his novella to a private audience, that this could one day become material for an opera in the tradition of Shostakovich's The Nose. Erofeyev, accurately predicting Schnittke's plans, began reshaping his text into a libretto.

But it was Mstislav Rostropovich who worked behind the scenes to secure a staging at Netherlands Opera of the as yet unwritten opera. Now Rostropovich, the most gentle and lovable of men, is also a crushing genius who can cajole and charm creative geniuses to leave off what they are doing, to do his bidding. And so Schnittke simply had to put aside his beloved Faust opera.

Then, in July 1991, when he was part-way into Act 2 of Life with an Idiot, Schnittke suffered another stroke. When he resumed work, the physical difficulty in writing meant the instrumentation had to become sparser and more condensed. Despite this, the already powerful sound of a smallish orchestra of 37 was not diminished.

At the first performances in Amsterdam in 1992, Boris Pokrovsky's cunningly claustrophobic production took the audience into the madhouse. For me, Hieronymus Bosch had come alive in the late 20th century. Like Bosch, Schnittke can imagine, in all its terrifying detail, the reality of hell, avoiding any temptation to rationalise.

"I", the opera's main character, is a pseudo-philosopher, a self-deceiver. His wife is good at commenting "sensibly" after the event in music that makes the Queen of the Night appear prim. She clearly prefers reading Proust to feeling passion for her husband. The musical shadows distance husband and wife from each other, encircling their self-absorption.

In Kafkaesque style, "I", as a punishment for his "lacking compassion", is forced to take a monosyllabic, onomatopoeic idiot into his home. By choosing Vova (Lenin's pet-name, as it happens), "I" sets in motion a Titania-Bottom chain of asinine infatuations that, in this case, leads to seduction, abortion, buggery and decapitation. Vova serves as an inculpable conduit for the demonic.

In Life with an Idiot, Schnittke's principle of calling into play a host of different styles (his so-called "polystylism"), and thus establishing his own special voice, is for once too damnably clever (like the libretto) and thus musically strained. Yet in Amsterdam I was gripped by having to face within myself a multitude of crazy truths I would have preferred to resist. After the third performance, I fled from the opera house down the road to a church where I might find healing in a performance about to begin of Schnittke's sublime Choir Concerto. Schnittke himself has said he sees the work as "open-ended". Yet, for me, the question of whether there is a way out from this vicious circle must continue to nag.

Schnittke did eventually complete his setting of the 16th-century German text of Faust (it will receive its world premiere at the Hamburg State Opera on 22 June). But he also realised his dream of resuscitating what logically he knew to be absurd - the re-invention of a recognisable symphonic form, in his Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, composed over a span of a mere 18 months. (He had already done this in a different, equally convincing way some years earlier, in his Peer Gynt, to my ears the first symphonically thought-through ballet score in music history, Stravinsky and Prokofiev notwithstanding.)

Linked with the newly austere, heart-breaking frugality of the Eighth Symphony (specifically its first movement) is the concluding section of Schnittke's third opera, Gesualdo, which he had all but completed before suffering another stroke last year from which he is slowly recovering. The opera is scheduled to receive its world premiere at the Vienna State Opera on 26 May. Richard Bletschacher's cloistered libretto probes the famous Italian madrigalist's state of mind before and after he has his wife and her lover murdered, and ends with his self-mortifying penance. The score shows Schnittke summoning the lean, intense lines of Italian opera at the time of its birth.

The style of Gesualdo, and the very different sound-world of The History of Dr Faustus, promise to disclose acutely dissimilar aspects of Schnittke's music from the very black comedy that British opera audiences can experience over the coming weeks.

n `Life with an Idiot': opens tomorrow at ENO, London Coliseum, WC2 (0171- 632 8300), then 7, 10 April; opens 11 May at Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (041-332 9000), then 16, 20, 25 May and on tour to Edinburgh and Newcastle

n A live recording of the world premiere, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, is available on two CDs from Sony Classical

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past