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The Opera Season

Moscow based theatre observers are talking about a new fad: opera. The events of the gone year are good proof of that.

The first pulse and tonality of the launch of the 2011-2012 season were given by two high-profile international competitions – Operalia and Competizione dell’Opera in July and September in Moscow.

The International competition Operalia was founded by Plácido Domingo in 1993 and since its inception was the obligatory stepping stone for many beginner vocalists who with years won the world renown. The competition is annually held in the world’s major cultural capitals. Moscow hosted Operalia for the first time with more than 800 applications submitted to the jury. The competition’s short list had on it 41 competitors from 20 countries (including 9 Russian participants), but only 13 of them reached the finals. The jury decided to grant top places in the nominations “male vocals” and “female vocals” as well as money prizes of US $30,000 that went to René Barbera (USA) and Pretty Yende (South Africa). The gala concert of the laureates was arranged July 24 at The Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre under the baton of the competition founder Plácido Domingo.

Another not less prestigious competition - the Competizione dell’Opera - also made its debut in Russia. As is known, its distinguishing feature is exclusively Italian repertoire, both classical and modern. The Competizione dell’Opera has existed since 1996, annually held in Dresden, and oriented chiefly at young performers. What pleasantly surprised Moscow’s opera lovers was the fact that all the three top prizes were awarded by a secret ballot to Russian participants: Roman Burdenko from Barnaul, Igor Golovatenko from Moscow, and Mikhail Korobeinikov from Yekaterinburg. “Your vocalists are simply very talented and there is nothing surprising that they got all the prizes” -Hans-Joachim Frey, First Chairman of the Competizione dell`Operaexplained the jury’s decision.

The closing concert of theCompetizione dell’Opera took place September 18 at the Bolshoi Theatre. And that was another pleasant event because the re-opening of this country’s chief theatre had been awaited for several years.

For almost six years Moscow lived without the Bolshoi. It was only thanks to brief news and accounts of press-releases that the public could guess what was going on behind the scaffolding that surrounded the building the Moscow residents were always so fond of. There were even rumors that the building that had gotten so dilapidated might collapse falling through the ground. Small wonder, the long-awaited Bolshoi’s “return” to Russia’s theatre life became the biggest event of the past year.

The reconstruction included the replacement of the foundation, remodeling its historical

interiors that had been lost in the Soviet times, including restoration of the theatre’s unique acoustics. The building has gone down 26 metres below the earth’s level with 6 underground levels 7,500 sq. metres now for a scenery dock and a 300-seat Chamber Hall. All told, the Bolshoi’s floor space has doubled to amount to 72,000 sq. metres. The main stage has also changed dramatically with the orchestra pit (now sitting 130 musicians), state-of-the-art stage equipment that for example makes it easy to remodel the stage floor depending on the type of performance, be it an opera or a ballet.

The very first premiere after the reconstruction November 2 demonstrated the technical and visual properties of the new stage. The Bolshoi opened with Ruslan and Lyudmila, an opera based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s poem of the same name by Mikhail Glinka, the father-founder of the Russian classical music, with musical director Vladimir Yurovsky, the head master of the London Symphony Orchestra and director Dmitry Chernyakov also doubling as a stage and costume designer. The premiere’s cast was international with vocalists from the USA, Bulgaria, Lithuania and the staff invited from a number of Russian opera theatres.

The Bolshoi had staged Ruslan and Lyudmila many times. Its maiden performance was staged December 9, 1846, and since then the opera was shown in nine different versions, but none have ever caused the squall of emotions equal to the November 2, 2011 premiere.

Dmitry Chernyakov chose not to follow the conventional treatment of the material as a fairy-tale, placing the protagonists of the classic poem within the present-day context with restaurant waiters, body-builders, paramedics in spa-salons, Thai massage and many other realities of today’s life. In an interview Dmitry Chernyakov gave shortly before the premiere he said: “The production’s theme will be modern. I always aim at what is modern, but never scandalous. This is not my style.”

But nevertheless the scandal happened. Right amid the performance the audience divided into two group: the adepts of the Russian classic opera who were stomping their feet, shouting “What a shame!” while others cried out with a stormy applause “Bravo!” The present-day Bolshoi lovers said there was nothing of the sort on their memories.

Moscow’s theatre and music critics also divided in two camps. No other production of the last several years echoed so loudly in the media. The article headings showed: “Ruslan, Lyudmila and the Scandal”, “The Russian Riot”, “A Phantom Opera”, “Many Jibes, Many Tears”, “A Stage Without the Head”, “A Big Break-Up”, “The Happiness Made Harder to Have”, “The End of the Quote”, “What a Miraculous Moment”, “Lyudmila’s and Ruslan’s Enemies.” A select of critical references can be found at: www.smotr.ru/2011/2011_bolshoi_ruslan.htm (available in Russian.)

Which form of an opera performance would take the upper hand at the Bolshoi, the classical one or a radically innovative, is impossible to guess. What is known for sure is that spectators are excitedly hunting for the tickets for Ruslan and Lyudmila.

One more production that provoked a heated debate involving Moscow theatre critics and opera lovers alike was X.M. Mixed Technique staged by Dmitry Krymov at the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre.

The name of the production comes from the lexicon of painters and museum or exhibition catalogues. This is a caption that usually accompanies a painting at a display. The Russian acronym X.M. (kholst and maslo) standing for “canvas” and “oil”, where as “mixed technique” designates the manner of brashwork. The English for it may sounds as C.O. Mixed Techniques. Dmitry Krymov’s productions always provoke in Moscow an interest verging on agitation, especially with those attracted by “the designer theatre”. His new work was not an exception to the rule, even though the opinions of the critics, quite like in Ruslan and Lyudmila’s case diverted dramatically. The following are two citations from the publications about this production:

“Krymov is a producer of intricate shows whose material aspects (the set, props, machinery, the space and other elements of the stage arrangement) have pronouncedly big significance. The charming tangibility of the world of objects, theatricality as objectivity became chief protagonists, and simultaneously the sole meanings of the production.” (“Theatre about Theatre”, Moscow News, Oct.18, 2011).

“Why is this performance called “an opera” at all? The operatic act comes from its score. Krymov does it topsy-turvy with the sounds “pasted” on the plot with no musical dramaturgy at all. And, by and large there is no music to glue things together except for a collage of. The author has no interest whatsoever in either instruments or vocals as such, because every now and then they are silenced by some noises. Presumably, the show can be called an operatic performance… Somehow the show’s leaflet failed to mention just any of the composers whose music was an assortment of a score of composers’ music performed. And to just imagine the names: Wagner, Monteverdi, Donizetti, Vivaldi, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.” (“A Cocktail for the Choir and Orchestra,” Noviye Izvestiya, Oct.17, 2011).

Dmitry Krymov explains the idea of his production as follows: “I always wanted to watch metamorphoses of most ordinary things and phenomena to see how something strange and unusual grows out of the usual things. I focused on four such observation objects. The first one is an ordinary apartment of a solitary woman. The second one shows children swimming in a river. The third one depicts the beginning of amorous relations between a man and a woman staged as a jazz duo, and finally, it was the cheerful and optimistic Soviet movie The Circus. We had no intention of disclosing or putting light on something in our show. We rather wanted to make sure that reality is richer more interesting than what books write about it. It is more dramatic, larger and more diverse. We tried to expand the field of our vision going beyond the boundaries of the evident and to see what really was there near us.”

Somehow this explanation was not convincing enough for adepts of the conventional opera so there were quite a few negative remarks the producer had to hear.

Spectacular opera premieres were staged not only in Moscow but also far away from it. For example in early autumn at the Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet theatre in Perm (Urals) Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte was a big success, even though the local theatre observers refer to its success not only “big” but rather “grandiose” with a wall-to-wall audience, endless ovation and a sea of flowers.

Russia’s Perm is believed to be a city of theatre-goers with many theatres, stages for visiting performers, and a site for all kinds of festivals for very exacting audiences. But owing to being remote from the European cultural metropolises Perm has never overindulged by world-class masterpieces. Cosi Fan Tutte directed by Matthias Remus remedied this injustice to some degree. The theatre’s artistic director and conductor-director of the production Teodor Currentzis gathered in Perm leading theatre specialists and opera singers from Germany, Britain, Sweden and France.

Unlike novel radical opera shows provoking noisy acclaim in Moscow, the producers of Mozart’s opera in Perm aimed at both sticking to its classical version and creating of an authentic performance. Genuine Neapolitan baroque interiors were created at the stage by production designer Stephan Dietrich and lighting designer Heinz Kasper. The theatre’s workshops had for several months worked with the replicas of the 18th century fabrics, having sowed dresses with corsets reinforced by whalebones, and made violins with strings made of real animal sinews.

The local theatre observers called Cosi Fan Tutte a “historically concrete production.” Spectators liked it a lot, and the numbers of opera lovers in Perm grew hundred-fold. The tickets for the shows were selling at the speed of lighting, so it was only possible to purchase an “extra ticket” from scalpers for an exorbitant price.

Time and new events on the opera stage will show how sustainable is Russian spectators’ interest in opera as an art form. One of such events that is closest at hand is the gala concert in the St.Petersburg Mikhailovsky Theatre March 6 dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Savonlinna Opera Festival. The world-renowned festival goes on tour abroad for the first time in its history. The concert-bill includes fragments of the classic opera repertoire rendered by the Savonlinna choir, the Mikhailovsky theatre’s orchestra with the participation of the stars of the world’s opera stage. Info about the event can be found at the theatre’s website - www.mikhailovsky.ru/en/.

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