Dec 13 2012

The Bolshoi Retains Its Operatic Legend

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A visit to the Bolshoi Theater provides evidence that not much has changed. The performance is sold out, and an army of scalpers offers tickets at five to ten times face value. A Russian classic is staged on massive sets, sung by powerful voices that might not be terribly welcome abroad yet somehow seem right here. At intermission, many people speak English or German, a reminder that foreigners make up much of the audience.

bolshThe activity at the Bolshoi is characteristic of the city at large. Moscow retains its fast pace. Some fancy boutiques, especially in the lavish, new underground mall near the Kremlin known as the Manezh, have closed, but some think that would have happened regardless of the economic downturn. Trendy restaurants and clubs respond to economic realities by lowering their inflated prices, even offering cut-rate “crisis” menus. But they profit from the Russians’ craving for an active nightlife and their tendency to spend their earnings quickly. There are fewer Western customers, since the ranks of expatriates have thinned out appreciably. Recent MBA graduates working at investment banks have been especially quick to head home. Yet the banks themselves remain, as do other multinational concerns, determined to ride things out until recovery.

Behind the apparent normalcy, there is genuine concern but not panic. “Sometimes I’m in a state of shock,” confesses the usually ebullient Dmitri Bertman, director of an innovative new company, Helikon Opera. A gifted stage director with several Western credits (including operas in Mannheim and Wexford), the thirty-one-year-old Bertman has much to lose; in eight years he has built the Helikon from nothing into a troupe offering nearly 150 performances a year.

At the Bolshoi, people simply refuse to believe that the theater will be left to flounder. In their view, it remains Russia’s most prestigious company, notwithstanding the higher international profile of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater. What many Russians want most is “stabilization,” so that they’ll know where they stand. “Since the ruble is floating, we don’t have a fixed way of dealing with our suppliers, because they look to the dollar,” said Sergei Belov, vice-director of the Novaya (New) Opera, a company that, like the Helikon, takes a lively approach to opera production.

For the most part, the crisis has intensified existing problems rather than create new ones, and recent years have provided excellent training for crisis management. Companies have had to make do with reduced governmental support — still upwards of 80 percent of their budgets — while scrambling for other funds, including those from tours. Musicians are poorly paid but have nowhere else to go. And the threat that top talent will be siphoned off by the West is nothing new.

While the federal government funds the Bolshoi, Moscow’s three other companies — Helikon Opera, Novaya Opera, Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater — are supported by the city. This means they fall within the empire of Moscow’s powerful mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a controversial figure, but one who brought Moscow a level of prosperity in the 1990s unmatched elsewhere in Russia.

Asked whether he thought it unusual that a city would support three opera companies, Belov replied, “Not really. The city supports about sixty-five theaters in total.” Its finances may be in better shape than those of the national government, but whether the city can continue to provide support at this level is a big open question. Historically, Moscow’s primary responsibility is the Stanislavsky–Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater, Moscow’s second major venue for opera and ballet and the third largest in Russia, behind the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky. “Time will see the effect,” is the cautious assessment of Vladimir Urin, the Stanislavsky’s general director, of the crisis. “The city government has kept us very well financed. The mayor is a man who likes culture and the people. And he has done a lot.” As another example of the city’s cultural achievements, Urin cited the Tretyakov Gallery, which reopened in April 1995 after extensive reconstruction and expansion and is now the city’s leading art museum. Clearly, opera is part of Luzhkov’s vision for his city, since he has also backed two start-up operations. Both Helikon and Novaya Opera go out of their way to counterbalance the staid predictability of the Bolshoi with provocative productions, often even taking a loose approach to the score. Yet their popularity reflects the fact that in Russia people go to the opera primarily for its entertainment value and not to partake of an exalted cultural experience. The Novaya (New) Opera is run by Yevgeny Kolobov, one of Moscow’s most able conductors. Its production of Eugene Onegin drew mixed reviews during its run on Broadway in New York last year. The company’s repertory is enlivened by several Italian rarities such as Verdi’s I Due Foscari — unusual for Russia.

So far, neither the federal government nor the city has reduced its arts budget, but subsidies have not been increased to keep up with recent inflation, either. The fact that opera companies can contemplate a future when government funding has effectively been cut by almost two-thirds is probably another indication that Russia plays by its own social and economic rules, which never fail to puzzle Westerners. The young mezzo Larisa Kostyuk, a favorite at the Helikon, is troubled by the situation but adds, “We in the theater don’t really feel so hard hit. We’re probably more stable than some businesses. Our theater is like a family, and it doesn’t depend on the crisis. Yes, it’s a strange situation, but not for Russia. We’re alive because we have music.”

Perversely, the national government has made it difficult to find alternative funds. For many arts organizations, private sponsorship, often from foreign corporations, remains crucial, but the government offers no tax advantages to the sponsor, and in any event the business operations of foreign corporations have been hurt in the economic crisis. In addition, arts organizations were sent into a tizzy during the fall by a federal decree requiring them to turn over outside income to the state, including amounts from sponsors and tours. But Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov recently assured them verbally that the decree would not be enforced.

Box-office receipts contribute little, since most Russians expect to pay virtually nothing for cultural events. Opera tickets are still priced at pre-August levels, although the Bolshoi raised its top price to 150 rubles last season — then about $25, now less than $10. (Those who go through normal tourist channels pay much more, but the Bolshoi’s low prices mean that revenues are regularly lost to scalpers.) Yet at the Stanislavsky, one of its most acclaimed productions, La Boheme, recently played to two-thirds capacity despite a top price of 50 rubles and a captivating Mimi from Olga Guryakova (familiar to New York audiences from the Mariinsky’s recent tours).

One thing the low ticket prices do facilitate is opera for the family. Children turn up even for Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel at the Mariinsky, with its nude finale, but fairy-tale operas bring them out in greater numbers. Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of the Tsar Saltan recently filled the Stanislavsky with kids cheering the magic squirrel and delighting in the bumblebee’s famous flight.

With the theaters generally taking a one-step-at-a-time approach, none has yet cancelled a new production as a result of the crisis. Because 1999 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin, even more attention than usual will be paid to this fount of Russian opera plots. The Bolshoi has commissioned The Captain’s Daughter — a new opera by Mikhail Kollontai-Ermolaeva, based on a Pushkin novella — and Helikon Opera has scheduled a three-opera Pushkin series. In addition, the Bolshoi plans Tchaikovsky’s rarity The Oprichnik. But budgets will be stretched. Novaya Opera’s new production of Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon, for example, will have to make do with less costly materials for its sets and costumes than those originally contemplated.

As a further test of the theaters’ mettle (and that of their funding sources), the economic crisis coincides with several ambitious construction projects. Perhaps most fortunate in this respect is Novaya Opera; restoration of the Mirror Theater in the Hermitage Gardens, financed by the city at a cost of $36 million, was completed in time for the company’s September opening. It is now ensconced in a sparkling 650-seat theater that for all practical purposes is brand new.

The Stanislavsky intends to shorten its season to revamp backstage equipment and construct new rehearsal facilities, but the biggest structural project involves the Bolshoi, which plans a thorough renovation starting in January 2000. Although the theater will be closed for two years, a replay of the scenario that has dogged London’s Royal Opera House should be avoided, since work will begin only upon completion of a 1,000-seat auxiliary theater now under construction, where the company will perform during the interim. With a total price tag of $350 million, the Bolshoi’s project is the ultimate test of what is possible in the current environment. But even before August, the federal government’s failure to supply funds on time led Luzhkov to intervene and secure bank credits so work on the auxiliary theater could continue.

Many hope the construction project will be the catalyst the Bolshoi needs to break out of its current routine. Under general director Vladimir Vasiliev, once one of the Bolshoi’s most renowned dancers, ballet has prospered more than opera. Recent seasons have suffered from the lack of an inspired musical leader. And unlike Moscow’s other companies, the Bolshoi currently has no foreign tours on its calendar. Last summer, however, the company appointed the veteran Mark Ermler as principal conductor, opting for proven musical credentials rather than youthful charisma.

Ermler oversees a company that retains an abundance of talent. It has a fine orchestra and many impressive soloists, including a number of accomplished sopranos. (Marina Mescheriakova, who made her Met debut in 1997-98 as Don Carlo’s Elisabetta, is the latest to find international favor.) And while some of the company’s singers may have lucrative engagements in the West, few have broken their ties with the Bolshoi. So maintaining decent musical standards is a goal Ermler seems likely to achieve.

But how much more exciting it would be if the Bolshoi could use its new theater to cultivate a fresher, smaller-scale production style, to explore greater theatrical and musical responsiveness, to investigate new repertory and even to strengthen its ties abroad. Artistic vitality will be the company’s best bastion in any economic crisis.

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