Where's the soap? It does, doesn't it

The first-night crowd had expected obscenity at the ENO. And, a couple of cock-ups in the bath apart, they got it. But when it comes to Schnittke's opera, Edward Seckerson says we've seen it all before
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The UK premiere of Alfred Schnittke's Life with an Idiot began 20 minutes late. April fool? Public disorder? Demonstrations? Mrs Whitehouse? Mencap? A police raid? The confiscation of prosthetic genitalia? No, just a minor technical delay. That was about as controversial as the evening got. No heckling, no booing, no outrage. But surely... what about those bad taste alerts, the promise of defecation, masturbation, copulation, decapitation..? Oh, that...

Well, yes, Victor Erofeyev's libretto is pretty outrageous - a celebration of bad taste, a wilful expos of Soviet taboos. But viewed in the context of a lifetime's social and political repression, its satirical ire is about as offensive as the Beano. Consider the plot: "I" has been convicted of a crime unspecified. He must select an idiot to move in with him and his wife. Community service with a twist. Vova (Lenin's nickname) arrives, wreaks havoc, decapitates wife, leaves. Who is the idiot now? And what's Marcel Proust doing there? Erofeyev is harking back to that old Russian tradition of the absurd: Life with an Idiot is a malicious slant on it. It's pre-Perestroika anarchy, it's a great big smelly raspberry blown on behalf of all those poor unfortunate suckers who bought - and lived - the Soviet dream. And that's about the size of it - so to speak.

Alfred Schnittke provides the musical captions, the exclamation marks. The vocal writing is all exclamation marks. "I" and his wife ejaculate notes that are way off the chart of any reasoned baritone and soprano writing. Hats off to David Barrell and Louisa Kennedy-Richardson for their astonishing commitment, stamina, and bravura. She - with her twinset, pearls, and feather duster - gleefully popping at the forbidden fruit above high C. Where the music ends, the squeals of delight and squeaks of anxiety begin.

Meanwhile Schnittke's excoriating orchestra is ever the agitator. A great Russian bear of a tuba grumbles away, the flexatone whines, the tuned percussion rattles and rolls, harpsichord (a Schnittke favourite), organ and piano are colours ancient and modern, and his shagging music is the best since Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth.

Then into the mix he folds the music of old Russia, some of it fondly remembered, some angrily parodied. When "I" contemplates his "Holy Fool", his "national treasure", Schnittke's strings feel a Tsarist hymn coming on; when "I" chooses Vova, the Internationale sourly drones.

Ginger-haired, check-suited Vova (Alasdair Elliott) looks like a cross between Lenin and Coco, the clown. Better yet, the Devil, when Paule Constable's lighting gets to work on him at the start of Act 2. Jonathan Moore's spirited production is a bit of a circus, an X-rated comic-strip, an opera nasty, a porno cartoon. It begins with an imposing tableau of Soviet propaganda - Red Guard on alert, Lenin's statue, red flag unfurled. Later, a cut- out of the Moscow skyline opens to reveal jolly Russian dolls: a benign waltz plays, "I", his wife, and their idiot pose, the model Soviet family. And then its down all the way into designer David Blight's inner-city nightmare and a chorus of peeping toms with spy-glasses and cameras. This, of course, is the real madhouse, Erofeyev's circle of hell on earth, and Moore and Blight effectively tap into its potential as cabaret with a colourful "chorus line" of lunatics, each with his and her own identity. There's even a Roman Baths production number: the moment when Vova gets his way with "I" (buggery in the bath?). Presumably we get to see what the chorus so graphically describes when they get it right technically.

Life with an Idiot is too long - about half-an-hour too long. You can feel precisely the point at which even Moore is defeated. Even so, as a slice of post-Soviet culture, it's already a collector's item of sorts. You have to feel something as the deranged "I", robbed of his life, his wife, his dignity, croaks "the swan-song of my revolution", and it just happens to be to the most revered of all Russian folksongs, now withered and ridiculed.

n Further performances on 7, 10 April, ENO, London Coliseum. Box-office: 0171-632 8300