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Culture news, 18.11.2005 13:09

A Tale of Two Operas

theatre The international reputations of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky (known in the Soviet period, and outside Russia today, as the Kirov) opera houses survived the Soviet period relatively unscathed. Even foreigners who identify little more than borshch, vodka and balalaikas with the theme of Russia know of the Bolshoi Theater.

Opera has long had a prominent role in Russian cultural life, and the Bolshoi and Mariinsky have dominated the scene since the outset. Catherine the Great issued a decree in 1783 ordering that “Russian Theater should be not merely for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas.” Later that year a troupe was formed which is now considered to be the starting point of the Mariinsky Theater. The Bolshoi dates its emergence from a few years earlier, meaning that the theaters are currently running their 223rd and 230th seasons, respectively. The main theaters of the two companies as they stand today were opened in 1856 (Bolshoi) and 1860 (Mariinsky), and both were reconstructions of earlier theaters destroyed by fire.

Now reconstruction is again on the cards for both. The Bolshoi opened a new stage in 2002, and closed the main stage for extensive and long-overdue renovations this summer. This reconstruction, which is scheduled to take three years, led to a national debate over its expense, as well as the resulting job losses. Meanwhile, the Mariinsky will close for reconstruction at the end of the current season, leaving it without any stage at all for two years. It has also had to make the inevitable job cuts, and for the next two seasons will rotate its performances around several different St. Petersburg theaters. When the Mariinsky does reopen, it will be joined by a second stage. Instead of the traditional form of the Bolshoi New Stage, the Mariinsky II is to be an architecturally radical structure featuring black marble and gold-colored glass, designed by the French architect Dominique Perrault.

In some ways, the audacity shown in the new design is characteristic of the Mariinsky’s more adventurous streak. “The Mariinsky was always more prestigious before the revolution, and during the Soviet years it was far more innovative and experimental than the Bolshoi was ever able to be,” said Rosamund Bartlett from Britain’s Durham University who is working on a cultural history of opera in Russia. “By the end of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi was a monolithic, unwieldy institution beset by corruption, with an ossified repertoire, stagnant artistic leadership and a demoralized company. The theater was a mirror of the Soviet Union as a whole.” The Bolshoi’s artistic director, Alexander Vedernikov, agreed. “There has always been an intense rivalry between the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky,” said Vedernikov. “The trouble was that, until recently, we’d fallen into such a decline that we were unable to provide any competition at all.”

The Current Repertoire

The Mariinsky’s 223rd season opened with an electric performance of Peter Tchaikovsky’s classic adaptation of Alex-ander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades. The largely black-and-white set and sharp costumes would not have looked out of place at any leading world opera house, and the direction was engaging without being needlessly flamboyant. Meanwhile, the same opera still regularly features in the Bolshoi’s program, but year after year the Moscow theater resurrects its 1944 production – either a classic rendering of a timeless opera, or a shoddy, unimaginative and out-of-date rehashing not fit for 21st century consumption, depending on the commentator.

The rather adventurous decision last season to stage Dmitry Shostakovich’s controversial opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Bolshoi for the first time since it was abruptly halted when Joseph Stalin went to see it and left deeply offended, was somewhat spoiled by an exceptionally conservative staging. The sleazy sexual undertones and brooding violence that make the opera so powerful were entirely sanitized, leaving a hollow shell that might have failed to shock even Stalin, and certainly underwhelmed the audience. “The Bolshoi is not like the Helikon,” said Vedernikov. “A big theater like the Bolshoi has to appeal to a wide audience and, although we do have some stagings that are quite daring, on the whole we are aiming for a different result than a small theater like the Helikon.”

This is an interesting reflection on audience preferences in Russia – the idea that stagings need to remain reasonably traditional in order to attract the public is at odds with recent tendencies in the West. The English National Opera was heavily criticized for Calixto Bieito’s London productions which have featured drugs, graphic oral sex and on-stage defecation. With fast-ageing audiences and a declining interest in opera, directors were desperate to boost attendances and attract new interest by being as controversial as possible. In Russia, it seems that remaining traditional is still seen as the key to keeping the crowds coming.

Still, things are beginning to change. The Bolshoi’s first new opera commission for 26 years premiered earlier this year – Leonid Desyatnikov’s The Children of Rosenthal, with a libretto by controversial novelist Vladimir Sorokin. The work met with vociferous criticism from many, including Duma deputies, who claimed that the opera was “defiling the stage of the Bolshoi with pornography.” There was nothing on stage that was even slightly pornographic – the main surprise was that the Bolshoi had put on a modern opera that was fresh, but still accessible. Vedernikov believes that the fuss was as much about disagreements over the rebuilding of the theater than about the contents of the opera itself. “Our theater has always attracted a lot of attention, including from politicians,” said Vedernikov. “It’s not just that we are geographically close to the Kremlin and the Duma – we are still seen as a ‘court theater’.”

This is not surprising, given that 60 percent of the Bolshoi’s funding comes directly from the state. This creates a level of dependence not present in the West. The Royal Opera House in London, for example, receives just 31 percent of its budget from the government-funded Arts Council, while a full 30 percent of revenues comes from corporate sponsorship and individual donations – something that accounts for a mere 5 percent of the Bolshoi’s income. Additionally, the overall budgets are much lower in Russia than at Western opera houses. While foreign collaboration in design and production is now becoming more common, neither the Bolshoi nor Mariinsky can afford to invite the stars of the world opera scene to Russia on a regular basis, and thus have to rely almost solely on homegrown talent.

A Renewed Rivalry

The superstar of the Russian opera scene is undoubtedly Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky. Possibly the world’s most famous conductor, Gergiev manages to retain a full set of duties at the Mariinsky despite dashing between continents to fulfill a staggering array of commitments with orchestras and opera houses across the globe. “Gergiev is able to produce absolutely stunning performances from the Mariinsky’s excellent chorus and orchestra,” says Bartlett, and it is uncontestable that the fiery Ossetian is a prodigious talent and a guaranteed draw at the box office. However, many critics and competitors mutter that Gergiev’s dominance is not healthy for the theater, and rumors fly about his fragile temperament and dictatorial style. “The Bolshoi is like a democracy,” says Vedernikov. “If I wasn’t here, or someone else wasn’t here, the rest of the management would still carry on fine. The Mariinsky is more like some kind of despotic dictatorship – I don’t think it’s healthy for one person to decide everything.” Anatoly Iksanov, General Director of the Bolshoi, declines to comment on the personality issue, stating that the main difference between the Moscow and St. Petersburg opera houses has to do with repertoire. “The Bolshoi is more Russian-oriented,” he commented, “60 percent of our repertoire consists of works by Russian composers. The Mariinsky looks more towards the West.”

However, even the Bolshoi is making some tracks towards updating its philosophy, and its repertoire. “As well as all the traditional stagings, we do now have some much more radical sets,” says Vedernikov. These include a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman where the entire second act takes place with the chorus pedaling furiously on exercise bikes, and a wonderfully playful and inventive production of Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Neither would seem out of place at any of the world’s great opera stages. Even Desyatnikov’s Children of Rosenthal was an unequivocal critical success, traditionalist opposition notwithstanding. “Audiences have traditionally been undemanding because they do not know what they are missing,” says Bartlett. Iksanov responds: “We now have more foreign collaboration and a greater number of premieres. It’s important for Muscovites to be able to see what’s new in the world of opera.” Many of the more modern stagings to be seen on the Bolshoi stage over the last three years have been achieved with foreign collaboration, meaning that the traditional one-way flow of talent from Russia to the West is beginning to be reversed.

The times, it seems, really are changing. In three years, when both opera houses have two stages for the first time in history, there is hope that both will be firmly reestablished as genuine world leaders.

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