July 5, 2006 5:52 pm

Russia’s top opera and ballet theatres go head to head

Unlike other composer anniversaries, the centennial of Dmitri Shostakovich’s birth happily comes at a time of growing demand for the composer’s music. Here are works of quality that are not overplayed, and their relationship to the society that gave rise to them makes for endless fascination. But just how much demand is there?

Disagreement on this point is responsible for the simultaneous appearance in London later this month of Russia’s foremost opera and ballet theatres – Moscow’s Bolshoi and St Petersburg’s Mariinsky (Kirov). Except when one played in the other’s city, this kind of head-to-head confrontation is a first.

It came about because Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky, insisted on a London season consisting solely of stage works by Shostakovich. “I wanted to do something different from Swan Lake,” he says. As with prior visits, the firm of Victor Hochhauser was expected to present the company at London’s Royal Opera House. But the Hochhauser organisation doubted that Gergiev’s plan had enough broad appeal and, after failing to reach a compromise, engaged the Bolshoi for a more varied programme. Gergiev then booked the Coliseum and the rivalry was on.

Russia is unique in having two such high quality companies. Both were privileged institutions during Soviet times, and both faced econ-omic uncertainty, even destitution, after the USSR’s collapse. More recently both have been buoyed by Russia’s rising economy, and both are currently immersed in construction projects.

Perhaps the biggest post-Soviet difference involves leadership. The Mariinsky has long been ruled by a renowned conductor of superhuman stamina. Some conductors disdain non-musical duties, but Gergiev revels in them. “Other theatres have dozens of
fundraisers; I have just one [meaning himself],” he says, not making a complaint but as a matter of pride. During lean times, Gergiev’s musicianship and charisma sustained the company and attracted new talent. Lacking a comparable leader, the Bolshoi stagnated.

But there is more than one way to run an opera house and, even without a powerhouse leader, the Bolshoi’s fortunes took a turn for the better, thanks largely to a recognition by the Kremlin that what was long regarded as Russia’s premier theatre could not be left to languish. Under Anatoly Iksanov, a businessman from St Petersburg who was appointed as general director in 2000 by presidential decree of Vladimir Putin, the Bolshoi’s budget has increased nearly fivefold. The appointment a year later of 38-year-old Alexander Vedernikov as principal conductor also turned out well. He is not a galvanising force like Gergiev, which may be one reason the Bolshoi looks to outside talent more than does the Mariinsky. “It gives us more possibilities to use the right people for the right things,” says Vedernikov.

By contrast, Gergiev asks rhetorically, “Why should I pay money for foreign singers when our own are just as good?”

The truth is that, on ordinary nights, opera casts could stand improvement in both houses. But in terms of repertoire the Bolshoi still lags behind the Mariinsky. Under Gergiev the Mariinsky has done nearly all the Wagner canon, for instance; the Bolshoi just Der fliegende Holländer. Western producers have long been welcome at the Mariinsky, but recent years have seen a spate of Bolshoi stagings by the likes of Graham Vick, Peter Konwitschny, Robert Wilson and Francesca Zambello. According to Vedernikov, Mariss Jansons and Daniel Barenboim can be expected in the Bolshoi pit in future seasons.

The Bolshoi’s operatic offerings for London are poles apart. Zambello’s arresting staging of Prokofiev’s sensationalistic Fiery Angel is balanced by the company’s staggeringly opulent Boris Godunov, with 1948 decor that deserves protection as a historical landmark. The Mariinsky has scheduled both of Shostakovich’s completed operas plus the musical Moscow, Cheryomushi, a delightful confection about a Moscow high-rise apartment complex. The brilliant but hard-edged satirical opera The Nose will be seen in Yuri Alexandrov’s dazzlingly inventive production from a couple of years ago. And, going against the grain, Gergiev performs Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in its 1950s revision known as Katerina Izmaylova, which tones down the sexuality but, in Gergiev’s view, makes musical improvements. “It may be less exciting, but it’s easier to call it a masterpiece.”

The ballet troupes of both companies weathered the 1990s more resiliently than did their opera counterparts and are now in peak form. The Bolshoi Ballet has flourished under its young director Alexei Ratmansky, even as his own choreographies provoke criticism. The Bolshoi offers six ballet evenings ranging from Yuri Grigorovich’s Swan Lake to the spectacular Petipa reconstruction The Pharaoh’s Daughter, seen in London just two years ago, and to the Bolshoi’s latest new production, Cinderella, with Yuri Possokhov’s choreo-graphy. The Mariinsky presents Shostakovich’s first ballet, The Golden Age, in a production introduced just last month at its White Nights Festival, and an evening of two ballets with Shostakovich scores, Leningrad Symphony, set to the great wartime set-piece, and The Bedbug.

Arguably, the Bolshoi’s biggest problems now relate to the condition of its 150-year-old theatre. It closed a year ago for badly needed renovations, which include rebuilding its marshy foundations – the theatre is set atop a subterranean river. In June it was announced that serious cracks had been discovered in the theatre’s structural walls, casting doubt on the proposed re-opening in 2008. Currently the Bolshoi’s home is its auxiliary theatre, known as New Stage, which opened in 2002 and seats only 900.

The Mariinsky’s building plans may have better luck. They involve a second theatre akin to the Bolshoi’s New Stage, construction of which has just begun to designs by Dominique Perrault (who was responsible for Paris’s controversial Bibliothèque Nationale). And next January the venerable Mariinsky Theatre itself will close for renovations. But where Iksanov dismissed 300 people because of downsizing during reconstruction, Gergiev recently announced that all Mariinsky staff would remain on salary.

With both of its chief theatres out of commission, opera enthusiasts and ballet-omanes will find Russia a different place. But with the Bolshoi pressing on at the New Stage and the Mariinsky having secured space in two St Petersburg theatres, there will still be much to see and hear.

After the London experience, diehards may be
curious about the Bolshoi’s approach to Shostakovich. For them a trip to Moscow may be in order. With all three of his ballets in
repertory, plus a recent
production of Lady
Macbeth of Mtsensk
, the Bolshoi will present its own tribute to the composer in September.

The Bolshoi Theatre
performs opera at the
Royal Opera House from July 25 to 29 and ballet from July 31 to August 21. Tel +44 020 7304 4000. The Mariinsky Theatre’s ‘Shostakovich on Stage’ runs from July 20 to 29 at the Coliseum. Tel +44 0870 145 7500

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