The subject of Rasputin is inevitably the stuff of opera: The name conjures up an treasure-trove of scenes, confrontations, moods, and emotions. The licentious peasant-turned-religious-fanatic - who preached redemption through lust - eventually ruled the weak and paranoid Russian royal family of Nicholas II as the country lay poised on the brink of cataclysm.
The sociopolitical free-for-all of the revolutionary period included such disparate personages as Lenin, fomenting his Marxist rioting, and the corrupt and decadent Russian nobility, vying for power in a crumbling czarist world that, in turn, was ruthlessly trying to suppress the revolutionary dissent.
Now Jay Reise has taken on this prodigious subject, creating both the score and libretto for ``Rasputin,'' which is receiving its world premi`ere at the New York City Opera. The work is staged by Frank Corsaro and conducted by the City Opera's general director-designate, Christopher Keene. (It will be performed tonight, and Oct. 5 and 11.)
Mr. Reise manages to create some dramatic moments that are gripping and stirring. Musically, ``Rasputin'' careens from dissonance to tonality, to tone clusters, from angular atonality to impassioned romantic lyricism.
Reise is at his best in crowd scenes and with the character of Alexandra, the czarina. There is a seething brutality to the masses gathering and rioting. The crescendoing musical maelstrom that accompanies the epilogue - where the royal family is assassinated and Lenin's soldiers become as ruthless as the czar's had been - is potent and disturbing. The composer evinces a compassionate fondness for confused, terrified Alexandra, who desperately falls under Rasputin's hypnotic powers, believing him to be the miraculous healer of her newborn son. Her music becomes more and more heartrending as her world falls apart.
But Reise fails to show dramatic skill as a librettist. His plot is a rather ordinary patchwork quilt of scenes that merely state the obvious. The dialogue is thin and flatly written; the confrontations have no spark.
The second act opens with an especially dreary oration (without music) by Lenin, a new populist czar in the making, which is repeated several times throughout the rest of the opera. The work ends on a fashionably nihilistic stroke with Lenin's soldiers pointing their rifles at ``us.''
The score is suffused with the echoes of composers that, one assumes, have been an influence on the 38-year-old Reise. It all comes out sounding vaguely like Poulenc's ``Dialogues of the Carmelites,'' with generous doses of modernity but without that composer's uncanny gift for touching an emotional nerve with just about every character and in every scene.
Clearly, director Corsaro has not been given a generous array of true-to-life characters to work with. Rasputin is a cardboard lunatic, the czar a one-dimensional weakling, and Yusupov, the leading nobleman of the story line, a homosexual who cavorts in drag at a nightclub. Only Alexandra really comes to life in the score and in Corsaro's staging, but one feels throughout the work's 2 hours of opera that nothing original or particularly interesting has been done on stage.
In interviews published before opening night, the director and composer make it clear they were out to create a shocker, complete with nudity, orgies, murder, and mayhem.
The resulting production is locked visually (Franco Colavecchia's sets are uniformly ugly) and dramatically in the '60s, when Corsaro's stagings were fresh - when writhing and mugging was considered daring, when silhouettes and scanty sets were the stuff in innovation, when having the stage characters confront the audience was considered startling.
Corsaro has gone on record as stating that he finds ``body-stocking orgies'' to be embarrassing, and that today's audiences ``demand'' nudity and realism in depicting orgiastic frenzy. As it turns out, it is Corsaro's naked orgy that's embarrassing.
In the title role, John Cheek lacks the commanding stage presence to convey much more than Rasputin's raging madness.
Jon Garrison plays Czar Nicholas well enough, and Henry Price has his moments as Yusupov.
Margaret Cusak sings the best of Alexandra's music with lovely tone, and acts with poignant tenderness. But not all of the role is well written for the voice, and Miss Cusak had her share of problems with those passages at the performance I heard her in.
Finally, Christopher Keene conducts with fervor, and the City Opera Orchestra coped handsomely with every aspect of the score.