The visit of the Mariinsky Theater’s resident company to the glittering opera house of the Brooklyn Academy of Music consists of three ballet programs with starry casts preceded, last night, by a single performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s opera, The Enchanted Wanderer. 

One of the evening’s puzzles was why this unfamiliar and far from crowd-pleasing work should be chosen to accompany a fortnight of dance. The rationale, perhaps, was that the opera is extremely static, its story more narrated than enacted—besides the chorus, there are only three singing roles—while Alexei Stepanyuk’s staging (with choreography by Dmitry Korneyev) largely consisted of athletic or dramatic movement by a male corps de ballet, often shirtless, not that I’m complaining.

Wanderer is also pretty short for a Russian opera: ninety minutes, no intermission. That left more time, one imagines, for a midweek cast-and-backers party.

Premiered in 2002 by the New York Philharmonic, who commissioned it, Enchanted Wanderer is based on one of the fables of Nikolai Leskov, the nineteenth-century satirist best known, outside Russia, for Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which in turn is best known from Shostakovich’s opera. Russian character and the enduring misery produced by consequent frustrations were Leskov’s subject. His prose, I am told, is highly poetic.

Shchedrin, however, is no Shostakovich, but he isn’t negligible. In his long Soviet career, primarily as a creator of ballet scores (usually for his genius of a wife, Maya Plisteskaya), he was more than a hack, less than a genius. He was obliged to ignore many fashionable trends of Western music, but this may not have made him unhappy. He is as Russian as, say, Carlisle Floyd and Douglas Moore are American. Folk elements, folk instruments, church-like chorales and actual folk songs turn up in Wanderer.

Under the baton of company director Valery Gergiev, Shchedrin’s score is intriguing, modern but clearly linked to tradition, tonal but never cloyingly so, fascinating in its mix of sophisticated orchestral techniques with folk elements, its austere momentum. There is melody, notably the song of the gypsy, Grusha, but melody is not the fallback.

The music might prove less appealing in less masterful hands than Gergiev’s. The pace of the opera is stately, like the rituals of the Orthodox Church in which all Russian music is, to a greater or lesser extent, grounded. The thrilling lurch of Moussorgskian drama, the glamorous melodies of Borodin or even Prokofiev, are not threads in Shchedrin’s fabric.

The hero/narrator is a renegade monk, Ivan, who while drunk flogged a holy man to death, and is therefore damned to eternal expiation—a bit like the Wandering Jew (or Kundry in Parsifal or the Demon of Rubinstein’s opera), but a Wandering goy this time around. Ivan tries to save himself from the usual drink-sodden abyss but encounters a Devilish barfly (the Magnetizer), who plies him with vodka.

Thus plied, Ivan gives all his money to a beautiful gypsy, Grusha. But it isn’t his money—he’s working for a Prince, who is intrigued by this malfeasance and goes after the girl himself. She is easily bought, but the Prince, soon bored, marries someone else. Grusha begs Ivan to murder her. He does, and feels awful about it. But cannot die. So much for expiation.

If this plays out like the guilty maunderings of a drunk in a tavern on the steppes, it is to Shchedrin’s credit, and Gergiev’s, and the staging, and the singers, that it felt engrossing rather than tedious. The score supplies witty orchestral effects, bursts of wedding song or monkish chant or snippets of dance that kept me curious about how the fable would develop.

Set designer Alexander Orlov set the story in a Russian swamp of seven-foot-high reeds, slowly demolished by rampaging dancers or barnstorming singers, producing the effect of a landscape devastated by war.

If nothing else, Shchedrin has supplied roles for his musicians that test and demonstrate extraordinary abilities. The vocal parts are parceled among three singers: mezzo, tenor and bass. Kristina Kapustinskaya sang Grusha the Gypsy in a voice of striking beauty, deep and incantatory as the song of Lyubasha, the similarly jilted mistress in Tsar’s Bride.

Andrei Popov demonstrated his versatility in the many tenor roles, from the shrill and ghostly murdered monk to the supercilious Prince to the merry, insinuating Magnetizer—you could almost hear his thirsty fangs in that last incarnation.

Ivan calls for the sort of bear-like bass that anchors Russian church music and opera, but Oleg Sychov was troubled by a prosy dryness at the basement of his range. Sychov was, however, a late replacement for the scheduled singer, and one appreciated the energy of his performance, which obliged him at one point to sing while suspended in mid-air by dancers and a long rope, ending in a noose, that hung down the center of the stage all night without ever hanging anyone. Like the story, the noose was ominous without quite fulfilling expectations.