Crime and Punishment at 150 (2016)

Crime and Punishment as an Opera Janecek, Gerald J.


To distill the complex psychology and plot of the 400-page novel into a two-hour opera requires considerably greater adjustment, than turning it into a play, since the libretto has to be even more succinct than a script for the work. The primary challenge is to select singable moments that nevertheless capture the essence of the dramatic situation. On the other hand, Dostoevsky's well-known polyphonic dialogism lends itself to operatic treatment by providing many opportunities for vocal ensemble as well as highly emotional scenes. Among the issues to be discussed in this paper are the choice of language (Russian vs. English), title (no "punishment" is shown), what scenes to include, choice of voices, the role of the hero, choice of musical forms for the scenes, staging of the action, etc. The new title, Transgression, conveys the key image of "stepping over the limit" [prestuplenie] and suggests the motivic image of the door threshold that will be used as the main stage trope. It serves as the door to the pawnbroker's apartment, to Raskolnikov's garret, to Porphiry's office and to Sonya's flat. Wagnerian leitmotivic structure is used for drawing ideational connections by musical means. Sonya's reading of the story of Lazarus, a text passage that is difficult to make dramatic in the original, can be converted into the musical highpoint of the work by vocal means. It combines the chromatic step-by-step rise of the reading of the Epistle in the Russian Orthodox liturgy and a lyrical fugato, and leads to the highest note in the opera, a D# during the reading and an E in the reprise in the finale. The libretto will be supplied as a handout and, if possible, a short selection from the synthesized score will be played.

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