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There is an immutable law of the jungle that the lion never confronts the elephant, nor the Kirov the Bolshoi. There would be too much at stake in such a showdown, not just for the big beasts themselves but for their entire ecology, too much culture that might come crashing down if the elemental truce were ever broken. The Bolshoi represents Moscow and the Russian vastness; the Kirov faces Europe. Back to back since 1783, they uphold antithetical traditions. An about-turn is not in anyone’s interest.
This summer, however, the two companies will play opposite each other in London’s West End, the Bolshoi at Covent Garden, the Kirov at the Coliseum. Both insist there is no box-office war, nothing more than a market opportunity to rake cash while the west effetely rests. But the haste with which the seasons have been cobbled together and the simultaneity of their launches exposes a breach in the entente and the outcome of the undeclared contest will leave casualties on both sides
The Kirov, led dynamically by Valery Gergiev for the past 18 years, has ridden high since the fall of communism while the Bolshoi has mostly mouldered. Gergiev, 52, is an international podium star with parallel posts at the Metropolitan Opera and the London Symphony Orchestra and a schedule that defies credulity. Over a recent weekend he conducted two symphonic programs in Michigan, with an opera in between at the Met.
Gergiev has brought the Kirov half a dozen times to Covent Garden in the past decade with the financial backing and organisation of the veteran UK impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser. It has not been a consistent run. After early acclaim for a clutch of Russian operas unseen since Revolutionary times there was critical and public dismay at Gergiev’s heavy-duty Verdi and Puccini, leadenly produced and variably sung; the last opera season lost more money than the ballet could make up. Gergiev agreed to make good by sending only the Kirov ballet this year. The Hochhausers duly booked the venue. Then, two months ago, the maestro changed his mind.
Lilian Hochhauser had been pressing him to include a ballet by Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer with whom the impresarios had a close personal relationship. Without prior warning, Gergiev announced that he planned to do a centennial all-Shostakovich cycle – operas, ballets and choreographed symphonies. Take it, or leave it. Mrs Hochhauser warned that two of the operas - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Nose - would compete against current Royal Opera versions, a discourtesy at the very least, but the Kirov chief was unmoved.
Facing an impossible ultimatum and an irretrievable contract with Covent Garden, the Hochhausers took a call from their old friends at the Bolshoi, who had sniffed something amiss in the wind. The Bolshoi, after three changes of management, were newly in recovery under the impressive young conductor Alexander Vedernikov. The Moscow opera package included a daring production of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel by the American director Francesca Zambello; the ballet had a raft of new dancers and a treasurable Shostakovich rarity – The Bright Stream, banned by Stalin in 1935 and never seen abroad. It was the work of moments for the Hochhausers to substitute Bolshoi for Kirov at Covent Garden and send out the summer brochures.
Gergiev, thwarted, hit the phones and booked the Coliseum through his Mariinsky Theatre Trust, a UK charity with a duchess, a countess and a marquess as its patrons and the declared support of the Russian Government, Placido Domingo and Lady Valery Solti, the conductor’s widow. The programme, entitled Shostakovich on Stage, is every bit as incongruous as the supporting coalition.
It offers, apart from ballet, the curiosity known as Katerina Izmailova – which is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk sanitised by the composer under state pressure – along with what are quaintly described as ‘historic Soviet productions’ of Leningrad Symphony and The Bedbug. Now it may well be that London is populated with secret red flag nostalgists who cannot wait to revisit the thought-policed socialist realism of a bankrupt ideology and will queue ten nights at the Coli for a last-chance retro look at the dinosaurs of Cold War cultural diplomacy.
But beyond filling the house – and the Coli has 1,000 more seats to sell than Covent Garden – the festival raises grave questions of political direction in a country which, under Vladimir Putin, has reverted to authoritarian government and the suppression of free speech. For the Kirov, at this juncture, to present Shostakovich as the Soviets saw him is as much as political statement as an artistic one, a distinctly generous nod towards a discredited past. The festival, which Gergiev has proclaimed ‘non-commercial’, is riddled with attitudinal ambiguities towards Soviet history. It suggests that Gergiev, himself a privileged son of the nomenklatura and long-term Putin ally, is trying to face both ways – and that is never a good idea in the act of making art.
More troubling still is his increasing high-handedness with foreign partners. Gergiev would not be the first maestro to imagine that his power is absolute, but what emerges from recent deals – which include a Ring sale to Wales this coming winter - is a surge of impetuousness and dictatorship style that will make it harder for the Kirov to flourish in future. To those of us who witnessed Gergiev at his best in the heady first years of post-communism, redeeming the Kirov as the flagship of a new society, this summer’s sombre London venture signals a worrying downturn.
It would be foolish on anyone’s part to predict an outcome of the head-to-head before a curtain has risen, but the Bolshoi’s return to Covent Garden has iconic significance, coming exactly half a century after the company’s first-ever overseas trip in 1956, when Magot Fonteyn sat at Ulanova’s feet and begged to be taught technique and Ninette de Valois decided that English ballet could go no further without an injection of Russian blood. The Kirov will, struggle to match it glamour for glamour. The two companies will appear for the first time as rivals. It hardly matters which comes out top, for both will have lost their invincibility and the value of Russian art will be weakened by their contest.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]