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Cleopatra and the Snake

5 MAR 2012

published in: Concert, Whitsun

Rodion Shchedrin (Photo: Schott Archiv/Peter Andersen)

This year’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival is dominated by Queen Cleopatra. The great Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin has been commissioned to write a work about this mythical figure. His narration combines old and new elements, is inspired by Shakespeare and allows Anna Netrebko to sing in her mother tongue. The mini-opera offers a universal story, replete with grand drama and fresh text. Brigitte Kempen (Opernglas) met Rodion Shchedrin in Munich, to learn more about this upcoming world premiere.

BK: This year’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival focuses on the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, opens with Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto and ends with the world premiere of a Cleopatra opera written by Rodion Shchedrin. Have you been interested in the Egyptian queen for a long time, or is the Cleopatra piece a special commission from this festival and thematic terra incognita for you?

RS: Cecilia Bartoli has taken over this Whitsun Festival, and this topic was her idea. My immediate reaction to her request was almost shocked rejection. So much has been written about Cleopatra; she is a myth, has been painted by great artists and is a movie star, even. And now I am to tell an old and yet new tale about her with my composition. However, I think I have found an interesting concept. I looked up Shakespeare’s Antonius and Cleopatra as edited by Boris Pasternak – an excellent work. The piano score of the whole composition has already been printed by Schott. The piece is now entitled Cleopatra and the Snake and is a dramatic scene for soprano and symphony orchestra. A mini-opera, so to speak, for only one singer.

BK: Anna Netrebko is named as the singer for the world premiere. Have you worked with her before? Did she contribute to the process of composition?

RS: We have not worked together previously, but we have met. Of course I know her fantastic voice, and I think my composition is a good fit for it.

BK: Will Cleopatra’s monologue be a look back, a snapshot of one particular moment, or a vision of what is to come?

RS: It is the most important moment of Shakespeare’s story, the execution of a suicide, a great tragedy – the same that also captivated the creators of old paintings. The confrontation between the queen and the snake is concentrated drama, the ultimate decision, the last decision of her life. To me as a composer, translating this moment into sounds, rhythms and melodies is an interesting challenge.

BK: Cleopatra is not a Russian character, but will sing in Russian. How does that go together? Does the cultural difference add to the interest of this combination?

RS: Cleopatra’s story is a universal one. It is about power, about love, about death – that is an internationally relevant situation. Furthermore, the text is very fresh, very interesting, offers great drama, conceived by such an equal genius as Pasternak. It is truly a mono-opera, a small opera lasting 15 minutes – and that is enough, so that the audience’s attention remains concentrated and sensitized.

BK: If this opera is conceived like a chamber-drama, is the orchestration small as well?

RS: No, it is a normal classical orchestra. You know Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine, a short opera with a soloist and large orchestra, lasting perhaps 45 minutes. My Cleopatra is based on a similar idea – except it doesn’t include a telephone…

BK: Whose idea was it to commission this work from you?

RS: Cecilia Bartoli selected the theme of the festival, but it was Valery Gergiev who initiated this commission, and he will also conduct its world premiere, apart from other concerts that he will lead during the Whitsun Festival. […]

The work Kleopatra i zmeja (Cleopatra and the Snake) will have its world premiere on Monday, May 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm at the Großes Festspielhaus. 

Further information is available here.