An opera on Primo Levi’s Periodic Table

An opera on Primo Levi’s Periodic Table


norman lebrecht

May 19, 2019

The English conductor Jeremy Walker will tomorrow lead the premiere of a new Russian opera based on Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir, The Periodic Table.

The composer is Alina Podzorova, the librettist and director is Asya Chaschinskaya and the premiere takes place in Perm, as part of a Diaghilev festival.


UPDATE: Jeremy tells us:

Last June, a soprano with whom I worked put me in touch with a producer, Elena Frolova, who was taking part in a Diaghilev festival. She was competing in their competition ‘Women in Art’, and won it with the concept of putting together an opera based on Primo Levi’s ’The Periodic Table’ (which I recommended to her). The prize was to put on the opera at this year’s festival. Elena invited me to conduct the opera along with musicians from the orchestra ‘Leggiero’ (of which I’m musical director). I then invited my good friend Asya Chaschinskaya to work on the project – we recently put on Piazzolla’s opera ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’, and discovered that we make a good team. We decided that Asya should not only direct the opera, but also write the libretto. We then invited Alina Podzorova to join the team as composer. From the very outset, the three of us worked in close collaboration, everyone open to ideas and suggestions. In the end, we were presented with an interesting, thought-provoking libretto and a musically rich score. There are four roles: Primo (Bass – Igor Vitkovsky), Doktor Muller (Tenor – Konstantin Samoilov), Irit (Mezzo-Soprano – Svetlana Zlobina) and The Voice of the Mother (soprano – Olga Reutova). The instrumental ensemble is comprised of six musicians – violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion. Furthermore, Alina will also improvise on the new instrument Duofluctus.


  • Dominic Stafford says:

    Although there are stories within The Periodic Table that deal with his experiences in Auschwitz, it is not a Holocaust memoir. It is, rather, a suite of stories describing his life as a Chemist.

    • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

      Not exactly. It’s a suite of stories on themes related to chemistry. Most of the stories are not about his own life; only a few of them are.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    An opera based on THE PERIODIC TABLE is a great idea! But that is not Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir although there are references to his Auschwitz experience in it, most notably in the chapter “Cerium”. His Holocaust memoir is “Se questo è un uomo” (published in USA under the title “Survival in Auschwitz”).

    He survived Auschwitz because of his training as a chemist– he was allowed to work in a warm indoor research lab associated with Auschwitz rather than doing brutal hard-labor outdoors in the freezing cold (more Auschwitz prisoners died from cold and exhaustion and starvation than from gas); he also was able to steal stuff from the lab and trade it in the camp for extra food from other prisoners and even guards. Fascinating history. I used to tell his story to my freshman-chem students and I would end by saying “so study your chemistry long and hard, kids, and then, if someone puts you in a concentration-camp, maybe you’ll survive too!” I don’t think my students understood very many of my jokes, but maybe the will, later in life.

    My favorite chapter in THE PERIODIC TABLE is “Lead”, about a medieval lead-worker, his family-trade, passed down from generation to generation, is the secret art of recognizing stones which contain lead and extracting the lead from the stones. He has a great life, because lead was so useful for so many things, everyone welcomes him everywhere and he makes a good living selling lead wherever he goes; the only disadvantage is his family all die young from lead poisoning. But life is so pleasant while it lasts that he and his family are all quite willing to pay that price.

  • Steven Hill says:

    The source must surely be Se questo è un uomo (translated into English as “If this a man”).

  • Steven Hill says:

    If this is a man. (An edit option must surely be possible!)

  • John Borstlap says:

    According to the description by Mr Walker, the notion of the composer was rather an afterthought. In opera, the most important ingredient is the music, NOT the plot, neither the subject. Only where the music can carry whatever story along, in expressive and communicative terms, is an effective opera to be expected.

    Not much can be found of Mrs Podzorova’s music but it appears to be quite colourful but morbid rather than expressive. She helped the Russian Ministery of Defence, who have their own symphony orchestra, to express their morbid musings:

  • Andrea says:

    Cannot find the opera on Perm Diaghilev Festival Calendar. Where is it?