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Moscow Nights – where the Bolshoi is only the start…


Neil McGowan offers a run-down on Moscow’s multi-facetted opera scene.

Moscow has always had a lot to offer culturally. It was, of course, the capital of the USSR, a country which placed huge importance on the mind-improving benefits of high art. Whilst many might smirk at the eccentricity of building an opera-house in the middle of the South-American jungle at Manaus, the solemn purposefulness with which the USSR erected even grander temples of the operatic art for the yurt-dwelling nomads of Siberian Buryatia seems no less quirky. Soviet munificence was equally generous to the populations of Tashkent and Almaty, and workers in the smelting-plants of Novosibirsk could be sure of a cracking performance of Les Sylphides to relax after work. The soviet border was no bar to cultural generosity either, and the steppes of Outer Mongolia were soon graced with benefits of soviet culture, in the form of Ulaanbaater Grand Opera House. Wherever there’s a Lenin Square, it’s a safe bet that the adjoining building adorned with a bas-relief of wheat-sheaves and hammer-and-sickles will be the Opera House (in honour, of course, of Lenin). Certainly the oddest production of La Traviata I ever saw was in 1981 in Tbilisi – Violetta sang in Russian, Alfredo sang in Italian, Germont Pere turned-in a noble performance in Bulgarian, whilst the revellers at Violetta’s tables did their revelling in their native Georgian. The public, being Georgians, occupied themselves with showing-off their finery, smoking furiously in the intervals and trying to change money with the English bloke in the specs.

But nowhere did the USSR do itself prouder in the field of cultural endeavour than in the capital itself. Russians are inordinately fond of international culture, and dazzlingly eclectic in their tastes. Moscow’s drama theatres this week (and every week) are packing-out houses with Pirandello, Stoppard, Gozzi, Tennessee Williams (four different productions), Campanile, Anouille, Wilde, Erdmann, de Filippo, Flaubert, Strindberg, Scribe, de Rostand, Calderon, Neil Simon, Goldoni, Schiller, Ginsburg, Shaw, Ibsen, Maupassant, at least twelve Shakespeare plays and much else besides – alongside a broadside of classic, obscure and avant-garde Russian work. And very much in the vanguard are no less than five venues presenting full-scale orchestral opera productions, quite separately from the Operetta and four venues showing musicals. (The musicals are all home-grown; although Chicago opens here soon starring Russia’s version of Lulu, Alla Pugacheva, her successful daughter Kristina Orkabaite, and her talentless husband Filipp Kirkorov. Kirkorov was born to sing "Mr Cellophane shoulda been my name", although I fear he’s going to be playing the lawyer).

The Bolshoi Theatre, is of course, the name that first springs to mind when we mention opera in Moscow – although for the rest of the world, it’s primarily known as a ballet venue. The Byzantine back-stage back-stabbing battles at the Bolshoi recently made A Masked Ball seem like Orville’s Christmas Show by comparison. Artistic Directors have come and gone quicker than the smoked salmon sandwiches at the interval. Much of this storm in a Russian tea-cup has in fact been focussed upon the standards (or alleged lack of them) of the ballet output – for when push comes to shove, it is the ballet claque who pull the Bolshoi’s strings. However, new Musical Director Alexander Vedernikov has come-up with a face-saving formula to buy himself enough time to concentrate on rebuilding the opera company and orchestra to the standards properly fitting a national "centre of excellence" - after half a decade of neglect in which they have been innocent pawns in the empire-building battles going on above their heads. The formula may not be innovative, but the critical press no longer barks for the Head of the Artistic Director after each disastrous premier. The ballet claque have been placated with appearances of their beloved stars (many of whom had been fired by the previous management and were dying to come back anyhow) in easy-listening repertoire. The opera repertoire has been pruned of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and a more crowd-pleasing selection of Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Puccini is now on offer. Even if they’re all revivals (or borrowed La Scala productions like Adriana Lecouvreur) the audience is, at least, not baying for blood afterwards. For a company that’s going to have to go cap in hand to National Government and commercial sponsors for the price of a wholly rebuilt theatre within the next two years, critical acclaim and public support count for a lot right now. There are still many problems remaining, however. The present building is literally falling-down, the "pit" is simply a curtained-off area of the stalls partly lowered in the 1930’s, and the financial position is officially classified as a State Secret – which rarely signals anything to be proud of in Russia. The theatre is also cursed with the dubious accolade of being a National Institution – on the Federal Budget. This means that whilst other Moscow theatres benefit handsomely from the comfy local budgets of Mayor Luzhkov’s Moscow City Administration, the poor old Bolshoi gets back-burnered by every flood, earthquake, explosion or epidemic to hit any square kilometre of the world’s largest country – and who can ethically argue for more scarlet velvet and gold leaf, when pensioners are dying of hypothermia in Vladivostok? A rebuild has been talked about for over a decade – and it seems that until the Bolshoi actually falls down around the ears of the performers in a Gõtterdãmerung more realistic than Wagner might ever have supposed, the present building and make-do-or-mend approach will prevail. Getting seats for the Bolshoi is rarely easy, mainly because over half of them are disposed of through unofficial channels in the first place. Since the theatre can’t afford to pay the artists the going rate, an old soviet practice remains in place whereby they get part-paid in theatre tickets "for their friends and relations". These are on-sold to the very active touts who can be found hanging-around the theatre’s noble portico up to curtain time, with opera tickets going for around $25 for top-tier seats to $100-150 in the stalls. The Bolshoi is an old-fashioned design, and apart from the Stalls and Amphitheatre, the rest of the seating is in terraced boxes (called "yarus" in Russian). Both sound and vision deteriorate rapidly as you go upwards – there are no bargains in the balcony here. The touts who hang-around the official Box Office (by the exit from Teatral’naya Metro Station adjacent) are slightly more honest, if not more ethical, than those operating in the portico. If you want to try your luck at getting a non-scalped seat, the ticket-window which is in the portico (to the right of the main doors) sells tickets at face prices, and – a handy tip – if you go along after 7pm when the touts have laughed their way home with the takings, this window is open until 8pm and often has tickets for shows later the same week. Here you will pay around half the tout-price, but only if the show is unpopular – an older revival, the second cast, or anything left by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi these days even has a shop – round the back, down Petrovka St, but apart from some dopey "best of Verdi" CDs featuring "no-name" foreign ensembles and some dubiously-tasteful folksy souvenirs, it is only of interest to those who want to buy dance footwear and leotards at astronomic prices.

It’s worth mentioning how the Russian Repertoire System works, since this differs considerably to what you may be used to elsewhere. Most Russian theatres (both musical and dramatic) keep between 12-20 productions permanently in their repertoire all year round, rotating them so that in any week there is the chance of seeing 3-4 different shows at the same theatre. For visitors to Moscow, this presents a mind-boggling array of choice, although for those of us that live here, it means that revivals are showing most of the time, and some of the sadder old productions only eventually shuffle-off when funds become available for something new to fill its shoes. Also, most houses do not have "first" and "second" casts. Instead, there might be four or five house principals who know any given role, and all their names will appear in the program. Each night the house-attendants have to go through all the programs with a pencil, ticking against the artists who are appearing that evening, and very often it will be a mix-and-match cast. (Hint – if the program is dual Russian-English, as always at the Bolshoi and more sporadically elsewhere, it’s the Russian-language version of the cast which gets pencil-ticked - but the order of artists should be the same in the translation, so you can while-away the interval working-out whom you’ve heard). Tonight’s Lensky might be next week’s Monsieur Triquet. In fact, trying to find-out who will be performing in advance is next to impossible – and where it is announced, it will usually be wrong anyhow. Things have advanced a little since the soviet era, however, and the chances of buying a ticket for The Nose and then being presented with Madam Butterfly on the night ("good job! We all hate that bloody Shostakovich!" confessed one house-attendant when it last happened to me in St Petersburg) in Moscow are now quite slim. However, in St Petersburg things are still done the soviet way, with the repertoire announced only 2-3 weeks before performance, and still subject to change without notice. Moscow’s houses vary, but many now publish a schedule at least 2-3 months beforehand, and some even print their annual season diary in advance these days. By the way, it always starts at 7pm in Russia – unless your ticket says otherwise. The opera season opens in late September or early October, and finishes in June – over the months of July and August the companies are on holiday, usually trying to make some money on a foreign tour somewhere.

If the Bolshoi Theatre broadly corresponds to London’s Royal Opera House, then Moscow’s "English National Opera" is the Stanislavsky-Muzykal’ny, to give the conversational form of their name. The great theatre-director Stanislavsky has close-to-godlike status in Russia (unlike Pushkin, who is widely-known to BE a god and about whom no ill word may be spoken) and no fewer than three Moscow theatres bear his name. The suffix "-Muzykal’ny" will save you from seeing a brilliant but incomprehensible dramatic performance of "The Cherry Orchard" when buying your tickets. There are more than passing similarities – like ENO, the Stanislavsky-Muzykal’ny is also based in a former variety theatre, whose unlovely interior is nevertheless very functional, has decent acoustics even in the cheap seats, has a better pit than the Bolshoi, and has a more accessible ticket pricing policy. And like the ROH and the Coliseum, the two theatres are a ten minute stroll apart from each other. In fact the S-M is Moscow’s best operatic bargain, with prices running from US$10 for the best seats to less than $2 if you sit in the balcony. But this is no cheapo alternative, and the S-M has recently given the Bolshoi an artistic run for its money, scooping the Golden Mask (Russia’s equivalent of the BAFTA’s) awards in multiple categories. Their current run of success is relatively new-found – if you had come to Moscow five years ago, you would have seen a depressing cycle of standard favourites performed in productions calculated to cure insomnia, and many of them still going from when Comrade Brezhnev was a lad. However, a new artistic team is now in place. Musical Director is the multi-talented Wolf Gorelich, previously MD at in the city of Perm (to which the Bolshoi Ballet was evacuated in WW2), and he seems to bring a golden touch to everything with which he’s involved. Moreover, the long-term discipline of working with one principal conductor over several years produces an assured orchestral sound here which outclasses the ensemble at the other end of Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street rather too often, considering they are supposed to be "the best in the country". Productions at the S-M are now in the capable hands of young producer Alexander Titel, whose output has yet to include a dud. Especially worth catching here are a stunning Boheme (yes, I know you’ve seen Boheme too often, but this is extra-special), a handsome Ernani with some of the finest Verdian singing you’ll hear anywhere, performed on a gargantuan set, and a riotous Die Fledermaus. However, head and shoulders above those excellent shows is their spanking-new Faust (Gounod), which is probably the hottest ticket in Moscow this season. It’s a post-modernist view of the work that succeeds on all counts – when Marguerite is stoned by the crowd after Valentin’s death, the level-headed companion I’d gone with had to look away, with tears in her eyes. Stepanovich’s Mephistopheles is a portrayal on an international level – "coming to an opera house near you soon", as they say, so watch out for him. Except for Faust (for which you need to book a week or more in advance) you can usually get seats on the day at the Box Office. If not, there are touts near the door from 6pm onwards, and even if you have to pay 50% on top, it’s still a bargain here. Be warned, they still have some of their tatty old productions in repertoire until such time as they can afford to lose them – The Queen Of Spades is a relic which is strictly for devoted fans, and you might do better to keep your money than spend it on their horrid old Ruslan & Ludmila, no matter how much you wanted to see Russian opera in Russia. There is also a ballet company at the theatre, whose productions share stage-time approximately 50-50 with opera – usually in blocks of about a week of each.

Only ten minutes walk further from the Stanislavsky-Muzykal’ny brings you to Moscow’s spiffiest new purpose-built opera-house, aptly named Novaya Opera, the New Opera. This is the brainchild of St Petersburg maestro Evgeny Kolobov, and has both the advantages and pitfalls of an opera house effectively run by a conductor alone. Kolobov projects a "wunderkind" reputation, but I am not convinced that he is really on the level he claims for himself. However, it must be said that the musical side is definitely the strongest suit at the Novaya. The dramatic level, however, is much more uncertain. With no permanent house director, Kolobov seems to invite a strange mixture of producers – from those with established international reputations like Ralf Langbaka, through to ballet choreographer Alla Sigalova, whose appalling Traviata was her first stab at opera-directing and is one of the worst shows currently on Moscow stages. The repertoire of the Novaya is also somewhat strange. There is a core of Verdi and Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin, of course), of which their Rigoletto is not bad in a dull and uneventful kind of way – the kind of production that "Friends" organisations often like, with a real jester who has an inflatable bladder on a stick. It does, however, have Mikhail Gubsky as the Count, and he is undoubtedly the best Verdian tenor in the country, so this alone is worth the ticket price (which is averagely US$10-20). They also have a few rarities by Russian standards, including the only staged Purcell in Moscow, Dido & Aeneas. They seem to have fallen into some kind of loose arrangement with Savonlinna to exchange productions, and many are tried-out in Moscow first. Far less successful in my view are their "operatic entertainments", which are really just "greatest hits" evenings dedicated to a specific theme or composer. "Oh Mozart, Mozart!" are Salieri’s words in the Rimsky-Korsakov two-hander "Mozart & Salieri", but are also the title for a saccharine entertainment about Mozart’s life, and more especially his death. I would far rather have had the complete Rimsky, personally. "Bravissimo!" is an even worse entertainment about Rossini, but if you have your old mum with you and you want to keep her out of trouble, the listening doesn’t get much easier than this. The public at the Novaya Opera are mostly rather pretentious New Russians who don’t want anything too tricky, and the whole experience is aimed at them. The building is new, plush and elegant, you are welcomed by specially employed "greeters" on arrival, who also say goodnight to you when you leave. The Box Office, however, is run in a highly soviet manner, just to bring you back to real life, with lots of pushing and shoving, and since you can’t buy your tickets anywhere else (Bolshoi and Stanislavsky-Muzykal’ny can be bought at Theatre Ticket Kiosks in the centre of town) there is no way around this. There are two different box offices, one at either entrance to the Hermitage Gardens where the theatre is located. Try both – I was assured that a performance was "absolutely sold out" at one, when tickets were easily available at the other. The Novaya Opera theatre is often found in use for touring troupes since it is such a nice venue – you might find ballet, rock concerts or variety shows here sometimes, although none is based in the theatre.

It’s hard to disguise a personal enthusiasm for Moscow’s most experimental opera venue, The Helikon Opera – but their international reputation does perhaps excuse me in advance a little here? The Helikon is the complete antithesis of the Novaya Opera. If music comes first at the Novaya, then drama comes first at Helikon. The venue is a completely inadequate hall which many would consider a bit small for string quartet recitals, yet somehow artistic director and impresario Dmitry Bertman squashes a full-sized orchestra in. The stage is a little larger than your lounge at home, and all Helikon productions somehow feature a colonnade of marble columns which are non-removable feature of their listed-building home. The public here is Moscow’s intelligentsia, plus a spattering of culturally aware ex-pats, who come for the show, rather than to be seen in glamorous surroundings. In this entirely unsuitable location the Helikon company give the most carefully-considered, psychologically-accurate, and thought-provoking productions you will see in Moscow. This is pure Stanislavsky method-acting, the only place you are guaranteed to see credible acting from opera performers who appear realistically the correct age and appearance for their roles. The repertoire is mostly mainstream C19th, with Verdi and Tchaikovsky prominent. However, the Helikon do Tchaikovsky incredibly well and are the only house in Moscow to have actually staged the complete cycle of his works - most of which are still in repertory. Their Onegin is a disturbing contemporary drama of a man who cannot commit to love – yet accurately and convincingly set in small-village Russia of the C19th. Mazeppa – a piece which often conjures unconventional reactions from producers in any case – is a masterpiece, combining dual anachronistic period settings (C17th Russia with 1960’s Soviet Union) in a drama which takes the issue of under-age love present in the original story as its basis. They do an excellent production of Verdi’s Macbeth. They also have a Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (Shostakovich) which pulls no punches at all, and is a gritty story of sex and violence, with practically no "good" characters at all, and a delightful early Mozart rarity, Apollon et Hyacinthe. Slightly less interesting are a couple of dramatic performances of Bach Cantatas – the Coffee Cantata (during which, yes, coffee is served), and the Peasant Cantata (which includes free beer). Bertman is not afraid to take risks, and not everything is equally successful. Aida somehow fails to get started (although it has some excellent detail), and there is a curiously unemotional Carmen with a plot twist that’s interesting if not completely convincing. Tickets are sold-out weeks in advance, but try anyhow – from US$8-18, although the venue is so small that it barely matters which you get. Worth knowing that the very cheapest are not proper seats but little fold-out-flap efforts, which you can tolerate for the Coffee Cantata, but which would make Aida an uncomfortable evening. House principals worth following include the remarkable tenor Nikolai Dorozhkin and the equally-good Alexei Kosarev (a remarkable performance in the Shostakovich); baritones Mikhail Guzhov and Andrei Vylegzhagin (a must-see Mazeppa); Svetlana Rossiyskaya as Carmen; and a notable number of outstanding sopranos, of whom Marina Kalinina, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Elena Voznesenskaya and Natalya Zagorinskaya are just a few. Bolshoi Opera star Elena Morozova is a former Helikon star.

Another small-scale house presenting outstanding work is the tiny Pokrovsky Chamber Opera (once again, it’s fuller name is too much of a mouthful). Professor Boris Pokrovsky was the leading producer at the Bolshoi in the 60’s and 70’s, but at the age of 85 he is still working, with his own tiny company in a small theatre a stone’s throw from Red Square. The company certainly has the most innovative repertoire in Moscow – they are not afraid to take on even the larger romantic works (although not always successfully – it’s hard to do Puccinni with only two desks of first violins and one desk of seconds), but where they really excel is in smaller-scale pieces. They have a super Paisiello Barber Of Seville which is a fast-paced belly-laugh slapstick hit that still delivers accurate and carefully-crafted musical lines. They have several Mozart standards (Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro), and a don’t-miss Monteverdi, The Coronation of Poppea, done as a "best-seller political/sex intrigue" fast-moving thriller. The theatre itself is brand new (if only the Helikon could get something like this?) and remarkable for being convertible into multiple staging formats – in the round, proscenium, traverse etc. Tickets are a steal, from US$4 to US$10 – treat yourself and buy the best ones. Specially worth catching here is comic baritone Alexei Yatsenko in a variety of roles, Irina Alekseenko as an outstanding comedienne with an awe-inspiring lyrico-spinto soprano, Sergei Ostroumov whose incredible versatility covers both comic servants and the Emperor Nero, and the exceptional young bass German Yukavsky.

We should also mention the Moscow Operetta. This organisation is currently going through a period of considerable change. Their main repertoire has traditionally been rather self-indulgent productions (some might say extremely self-indulgent) of the "high end" of operetta – lots of Lehar, Strauss, Kalman etc. However, in recent years they have also begun doing musicals, and indeed they commissioned the first home-grown musical in Moscow, "Metro" – a sort of "Miss Saigon in Russia" piece which is just as sentimental as the rest of their repertoire. However, if you like this sort of thing (and most of the audience here seem to know the repertoire at least as well as the performers do) you may find something to your liking here. But not for long… there is a current plan to demolish the theatre (it is, we should say, in a very poor state indeed). According to the plan, at least, they will construct a fast-track building here which would become a temporary home for the Bolshoi Theatre whilst their own theatre is rebuilt. Then the Bolshoi will reopen and the Operetta Company can have their theatre back. The plan seems to work on the basis that the audience of the Operetta are mostly old ladies who aren’t a serious voice in politics and will not cause any trouble – and that the Operetta can be safely moved to any other theatre in the meantime, or sent on never-ending tours of Siberian cities pro-tem. Other views are that this is simply a way to close-down the Operetta by stealth – a view chiefly held by music-lovers. The absence of a Federal Budget for any of the above, however, means that the arguments can carry-on with increasing spitefulness between the aggrieved parties, without the actual danger than anything will really happen.

There are also some piano-accompanied opera performances given by Arbat Opera and Amadei. Although they are meant for children, the productions of the Sats Childrens Music Theatre can be very good ("starter" operas like The Magic Flute) and are the launching pad for many younger singers. The Vishnevksaya Opera School (still being built) is likely to be offering concerts, staged scenes and complete works by its students once it opens, although this will not be until late 2003.


Concert Halls, Recital Venues, Ensembles and other groups will be covered in a later article.


LISTINGS: (tel no is the Box Office in all cases)

Bolshoi Theatre, Teatral’naya Ploschad’ #1, metro Teatral’naya, 292 9986

Stanislavsky-Muzykal’ny Theatre, Bolshaya Dmitrovka #17, metro Pushkinskaya, 229 2835

Novaya Opera, Karetny Ryad #3, metro Pushkinskaya, 200 0868

Helikon Opera, Bolshaya Nikitskaya #19, metro Tverskaya or Biblioteka im. Lenina, 290 9071

Pokrovsky Chamber Opera, Nikolskaya #17, metro Lyubyanka, 929 1390

Moscow Operetta, Bolshaya Dmitrovka #6, metro Teatral’naya, 292 1237

[Arbat Opera usually perform weekly at Dom Aktera (recital room, top floor), Arbat St #35 – side entrance]

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