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Culture news
Theatrical renaissance
10.15.2007 16:04

mussorgsky_theatre By Larisa Doctorow

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

The new management at the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theater is keeping its promise: following extensive restoration work that began in June, the theater, sometimes referred to by its historic name, Mikhailovsky, and also the Maly, has just opened its new season, confounding skeptics who doubted the make-over could be completed in just four months.

The restoration of this Empire Style edifice on Ploshchad Iskusstv (Arts Square) created by Carl Rossi comes as the theater celebrates its 175th anniversary. The cost of the renovation is said to have topped 300 million rubles ($12 million) which was donated by the St. Petersburg businessman Vladimir Kechman who last spring unexpectedly became the new general manager of the theater.

The concept behind the renovation was to improve, restore and, where possible, preserve. The roof, electrical wiring, and water and fire systems all needed to be replaced. Other major renovations included the enlargement and lowering of the orchestra pit and the improvement of the hall’s acoustics. This last task was carried out under the direction of Yasuhisa Toyota of the internationally acclaimed Nagata Acoustics, who was also a consultant to the Mariinsky Theater’s new Concert Hall on Ulitsa Pisareva.

What the public will notice at once is a splendid, freshly painted façade, a newly gilded hall, and a new curtain created according to classic designs discovered in the theater archives. During intermissions the refurbished foyer rooms and buffets will surely attract compliments. However, what the audience doesn’t see has also been upgraded: back stage areas have been greatly improved, including the installation of a heating system and the restoration of rehearsal and make-up rooms.

But a theater is not only a physical structure. The heart of it is its troupe, including three companies: opera, ballet and the orchestra. The new manager of the Mussorgsky opera company is world renowned Russian singer Yelena Obraztsova. The celebrated dancer Farukh Ruzimatov, who was for 25 years leading soloist of the Mariinsky Theater, has taken over the ballet company.

Principal conductor Andrei Anichanov assures continuity at the head of the orchestra, while taking on the additional role of deputy artistic director. These three pivotal figures spoke at the official opening of the renewed theater earlier this month about their plans.

“I started my work with the troupe listening to all the singers, soloists and chorus members,” Obraztsova said. “I liked the soloists but not so much the chorus. It needs work. The main problem is to sing without forcing the sound. And I started instruction and sharing trade secrets.”

In addition to its own soloists, the theater intends to invite lead singers from around the world. For the opening night the great Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov returned from London to join Obraztsova in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades.”

Another noteworthy innovation is that from now on all operas will be performed in their original languages. To prepare the singers for this important change, the theater is inviting foreign languages coaches, starting a contingent of French teachers. In November the theater will be taking Bizet’s “Carmen” to Japan and for the first time will present it in French.

The repertoire will be refreshed, adding some less known but worthy pieces. This should take the Mikhailovsky back to where it was in the immediate post-Revolutionary period when it was considered the city’s workshop for modern music. This is where groundbreaking director Vsevolod Meyerhold worked and new operas by Dmitry Shostakotvich were first staged.

This season the theater will perform “Werther” by Massenet and “The Director of the Theater” by Mozart. Sergei Taneyev’s “Oresteia” (1895) will be staged by the Russian film director Alexander Sokurov. This season will also feature “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni, a verismo piece that most Westerners know as the second part of the traditional opera double-bill with the more famous “Pagliacci.”

The ballet troupe of the theater is undergoing its own rejuvenation (see box, right). The new ballet director is well acquainted with the dancers, with whom he has collaborated off and on for 15 years including on foreign tours, so they found a common language without delay. It has been agreed that the classics should remain the backbone of the repertoire. However, there will be big changes.

The theater intends to invite celebrated dancers to give master-classes as well as to participate in the shows. This season the theater will present a new version of “Spartacus” (1954) by Aram Khachaturian and the classic Petipa “Giselle” (1884) using scenery from the Opera de Paris. The quality of the troupe will be improved by inviting new dancers and holding regular competitions.

The orchestra’s plans include adding symphony concerts to the schedule. The first of these took place on Sept. 30.

Finally, the new management intends to pick up some of the activities for which the Mikhailovsky was known before the 1917 October Revolution, when it did not have its own troupe and relied upon invited artists. The Michailovsky will be a venue for various performing artists, including drama companies. This season there will be a jazz concert with Moscow saxophone virtuoso and bandleader Igor Butman.

There is an important new ticketing policy: discriminatory pricing against foreigners has been abolished. Now everyone can walk through the doors without being stopped and asked to show their passport to prove entitlement to subsidized prices. The management hopes to recover any revenues lost by this even-handed approach via the introduction of a limited number of “high comfort” seats in the boxes of the dress circle, which will cost 3,500 rubles ($140). Otherwise the theater will be modestly priced, with weekday shows on offer for between 100 and 700 rubles ($4-$28), rising to 280-1,050 rubles ($11-$42) on weekends. For special children’s performances, the minimum price is 100 rubles ($4).

However in practice, the new ticketing policy represents two steps forward but one step back. Unexpectedly the theater administration has replaced one form of discrimination for another.

From now on, theater-goers who hold tickets to the second and third balconies are segregated to the back of the bus: they have no right to go join other ticket holders in the elegant foyer and buffets, now reserved for those sitting in the stalls, dress circle and first balcony. To assure that no one will try to sneak in, bouncers guard the entrances to the foyer.

This new policy runs counter to the trend of democratizing classical music, as even the Mariinsky Theater is following at its new Concert Hall opened last year where the various levels of the auditorium lead out to an atrium-like, multi-level foyer joined by an open staircase.

One other peculiar feature of the renovation that stands in contrast to the management’s stated aim of performing all operas in their original languages is the failure to provide any kind of subtitling system.

Given that the auditorium was substantially improved, it would have been logical to provide individual screens on the seats such as those at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Opera and many other houses have long had.

There is no indication that a screen over the stage to provide subtitles has been anticipated. In this day and age, it is hard to see how the well-heeled opera going public is going to accept being left clueless as to the action on stage.

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