Reviewing Russian Rock Operas: Finrod (2001) and The Lay of Leithian (2021)
It is a strange world we live in. No sooner had I finished working my way through the infamous 1970 Boorman script of The Lord of the Rings than I stumble across these little treasures. And by treasures, I mean two Russian Rock Operas/Musicals.
Of the story of Beren and Lúthien, no less.
It’s enough to make you smile. A stage adaptation of The Silmarillion? Unthinkable. The Tolkien Estate would never allow such a thing! Except that this is Russia we are talking about, and they have always had a somewhat fast-and-loose view of this whole licensing business. Hence the 1985 Hobbit, the 1991 Animated Hobbit Pilot, and Khraniteli, the 1991 Fellowship of the Ring. Finrod (the musical) apparently premiered in 2001, and continued to run until 2017, when a second version appeared. See here for more details – https://fanlore.org/wiki/Finrod%27s_Song
Chalk this one up as “another obscure Tolkien adaptation getting reviewed on A Phuulish Fellow.” I swear, I can’t help myself.
At a tad under a hundred minutes, Finrod the musical is a two act piece, focusing on Finrod Felagund’s role in the Quest for the Silmaril. The first act deals with the story up until Finrod and Beren’s capture by Sauron. The second picks up the story from there, until Lúthien’s defeat of Sauron.
You can see the entire thing – in its 2014 performance – here. Fortunately, the YouTube video enables English subtitles, so you can actually follow along without knowing Russian:
What to make of this?
Well, my first thought is to admire the ambition, creativity and dedication of the production. And while I am hardly an opera-buff, I think the overall concept works. Which is saying something, seeing as this really is venturing into unknown waters, so far as Tolkien adaptations go. This particular rock opera is also the closest we will come to seeing Celegorm, Curufin, Thingol, Melian, First Age Sauron, Beren, Lúthien, and Amarië being acted live any time soon (unless Amazon get really enthusiastic with flash-backs).
I liked the handling of theme too. Appropriately, there is plenty of focus on the Power of Love, and contrasting the actions of the characters within a Fate/Free Will paradigm (Sauron is very keen on the notion that everything is bound by the Song of Creation). Much is also made of the thematic contrast between the honour-to-a-fault of Felagund and the treacherous shit-weasels Celegorm and Curufin. Given the competition (they make Thingol worse than the book), the titular character is basically reduced to single-handedly redeeming the entire Elven people in the face of Beren’s accusations. This is quite an angry Beren, actually.
Oh, and 2014 Rock Opera Finrod is arguably closer to how most Silmarillion geeks view the titular character than the brief shots of Amazon Finrod. At least in terms of hair, anyway – it’s shorter than most artistic depictions, but feels like it fits.
I think the production’s major weakness is the handling of exposition. I can follow it well enough, and I am sure their intended audience (hardcore Russian Tolkien geeks) could follow it too. It’s just that I can imagine even casual Tolkien fans being a bit confused. There is heavy reliance on the audience knowing the overall story – not just the Quest narrative, but the circumstances that led to Finrod being separated from Amarië in the first place. Otherwise references to the Ice will simply go over people’s heads. It is also all very well to talk about the Quest going after the Silmarils in Morgoth’s Crown… but we never see Morgoth or the Silmarils (which makes the promotional poster a bit misleading). The Enemy for the purpose of the production is Sauron, not Morgoth.
(This is arguably a problem inherited from the material they are trying to adapt. Beren and Lúthien, in contrast to, say, Túrin, is not exactly a stand-alone narrative within the wider First Age. To make sense of it, you need to cover backstory. And in the case of Finrod, we are only dealing with a slice of the overarching story, one that is arguably difficult to present in a self-contained fashion).
I also felt that Celegorm and Curufin are treated a bit roughly, at least in comparison with their portrayal in the source material. While the production definitely does emphasise the importance of the Oath, their initial response to hearing of Beren’s Quest is basically a pragmatic one – emphasising to Finrod and the people of Nargothrond that it’s a suicide-mission. Which is fair enough, of course. The Quest is indeed suicide. My query is more that the connection between the Quest and their Oath is only subsequently brought up, when the pair are talking in private.
And Thingol offering one brother the hand of his daughter, and the other the crown of Nargothrond? That’s one hell of a character shift – making the Sons of Feanor substantially less evil, and making Thingol substantially more. The problem is that the sort of audience who might be expected to know who Amarië is might also find Thingol’s behaviour rather jarring – we are talking the fellow who banned Quenya because of these people, so him giving them his beloved daughter? That’s a stretch. Oh, and despite the rich rewards on offer, Celegorm and Curufin are surprisingly willing to abandon their little mission out of respect for Lúthien’s determination. Overall, they come across as weak and a bit pathetic, rather than overt villains – a fair enough reading perhaps, but to my mind a shift from the source material.
The production cuts Huan too. Lúthien takes out Sauron by herself. Purists might object, but I can see the rationale here – it’d add additional running length, while introducing additional complexities in terms of Sauron as a shape-changer on stage. Besides, this musical is really supposed to be about Finrod anyway.
The Lay of Leithian (2021)
As of November 2021, there is another Russian Rock Opera take on the tale, this time looking at the wider story, rather than just a slice of it. Alas, we don’t yet have a full subtitled version to enjoy (and one suspects that certain current events have not helped in that department), but we do have individual YouTube clips like this one:
And more importantly from my reviewing perspective, here is an English translation of the libretto:
It is the libretto I will be considering today.
Based purely off the sung words, in the absence of visual cues, I think I am safe in saying that this rock opera is a good deal more Purist than the earlier effort with Finrod. In fact, by shifting the status of ‘main character’ back to Beren, I also feel that the story flows better, since we are getting his story, rather than getting caught up with Felagund’s issues. The earlier musical arguably had a tension between the primacy of character and the primacy of plot, which is not an issue here.
Here we start with a Prologue, then we follow the story from Beren-as-Outlaw to Lúthien and Beren returning from Death. At which point the story concludes – there are no Necklace of the Dwarves shenanigans, which is fair enough. The production is ambitious enough to not only show us Finrod Felagund’s verbal battle with Sauron, but also Lúthien before Morgoth… and even the scene with Mandos. No pressure on the performers, given that this is supposed to be the most moving song ever heard in Arda…
The characters and action follow Tolkien closely. Celegorm, Curufin, and Thingol are certainly much closer to their book counterparts than what we saw in the Finrod musical, and we see Huan and Daeron too. I would also suggest that those rare occasions when there is a divergence from the text, they are justified ones. The people of Nargothrond are not shown as weak and foolish here, but rather sensible in their accusation that Felagund is putting his personal honour above the needs of his kingdom. Morgoth has a better sense of what is going on, to the point of explicitly ordering Sauron to have Beren dealt with. There is a nice literary reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Heather Ale. Overall, certain aspects of the story are simplified, though given the medium of stage musical/rock opera, I don’t think one can really complain that Carcharoth biting off Beren’s hand seems to be a matter of “telling” rather than “showing.”
(Thingol’s line on seeing the returned Beren: “It was probably unfair of me / To send you after a Silmaril” is one hell of an understatement, however).
Without having seen the production at the visual level, I am not sure whether my earlier queries about the handling of exposition apply to The Lay of Leithian (2021). I think on balance, they make a better fist of it here. Having the full story to work with probably helps, and having Lúthien first address the Chorus of Shadows gives the audience a decent idea of who this Mandos chap actually is.
So yeah. Something a bit different. Rock opera adaptations of a chapter from The Silmarillion, of all things. Definite points for ambition and creativity, and in contrast to the older films from the 1980s and 1990s, arguably a case of using the medium to its advantage – one does not need fancy, expensive special effects here, only costumes, singing, and dancing. Ignoring those pesky copyright issues (an invention of Morgoth if ever there was), I dare say this is something that ought to be better known in the wider Tolkien fandom – outside Russia, at any rate.