History records that Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, met his death — along with the Empress Alexandra and their five children — at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad during the Russian Revolution. As composer Deborah Drattell would have it, however, Russia’s final royalty fell victims to terminal boredom, shared by an undemonstrative crowd that thinned markedly during the three excruciating hours of her latest operatic venture, commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and given its world premiere Sunday.
For Brooklyn-born Drattell, a string of less-than-rapturous receptions to previous operas (most recently “Lilith,” produced by New York City Opera in November 2001) seems not to have cooled her creative ardor. “Nicholas and Alexandra,” with a text by Nicholas von Hoffman unrelated to Robert K. Massie’s book of that name (filmed by Franklin J. Schaffner in 1970), deploys a populous and lavishly costumed cast (38 separate sung roles) across Robert Israel’s tricky, oversized sets (sliding panels, scrims, the works). Everything pleases the eye; little beguiles the ear.
Who are these people — Russia’s bumbling, ineffective last ruler, the conniving pseudo-monk who holds the royal family in his thrall, the loving but put-upon empress, the plotters and sub-plotters who bring about their nation’s downfall? Nothing in Drattell’s moaning, groaning, over-embroidered score provides answers.
The composer has had the resource to provide her one superstar — tenor Placido Domingo, adventurously but wrong-headedly cast as the hypnotic Rasputin — with loud and applause-worthy vocal lines. What’s missing — fatally so — is any sense of music defining personality, character or motivation. The dense, tuneless, pseudo-high-Russian-romantic smog of a score, interlaced with solemn chanting from the chorus behind the scrim, resolving toward the end into a pretty good Bach pastiche, might just as well serve a whole other set of characters in another time and place.
Clearly, the venture represents hard work. On the podium, Russian cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich manages to impart some sense of movement to the proceedings. But that movement is, at best, sporadic; one rhythmic figure (TOM-ta-ta TOM-ta-ta) becomes an obsession early on, and then a downright nag.
Rodney Gilfry is Nicholas, Nancy Gustafson is Alexandra; both are capable singers mired in weak-tea characters with music to match. As the hemophilia-racked Tsarevitch Alexis, the opera’s one potentially sympathetic character, boy soprano Jonathan Price gets to wail “Mamma” now and then, but little else.
Director Anne Bogart, an old Drattell hand, has brought along SITI, her 10-member company of mimes, to push things around on the stage and contribute one more semblance of movement to the mostly motionless affair.