Culture Capital: Opera in Moscow

In March I had two very different opera experiences in Moscow. The first was a performance on Don Giovanni in the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, the second ‘The Enchantress’ in the Bolshoi. The differences were in the audience, in the style of performance, costumes, set, and reception of the performance, although both were done to an extremely high standard.

Don Giovanni is an opera by Mozart which is fairly easy to follow- Don Giovanni attempts to/seduces women, mainly those already taken by other men, and gets into all sorts of trouble. In the first scene, he goes so far that he murders his lovers father, and she and her betrothed swear revenge- although they are not sure who he is. The rest of the opera revolves around them seeking out the murderer, and Don Giovanni breaking hearts and seducing women without a care in the world, until his evil deeds finally catch up with him.

Our view of the stage- from the 8th row. The beautiful curtain is adorned with countless double-headed eagles. (Foto credit:Katie)

In the Stanislavsky theatre, the main set piece was a wall of pianos, which when turned around was a wall of flowers. As far as I can tell, there was strategic decision have the flowers represent the street and the pianos to show the interior. This two-sided wall and the curtain proved the most used stage pieces, which allowed for a lot of depth, changing the space to fit different rooms, and to allow the characters to hide. It was awesome how the actors, in their Victorian(ish) costumes moved around the stage, climbed on the different parts of the wall to create different arrangements.

One of the main roles of the ‘piano wall’ was to show the decent of Don Giovanni into hell, when he refused to repent for his murder and his adulterous ways. As the ghost approached Don Giovanni, the wall of pianos advanced with him, making the stage smaller and giving the impression that Don Giovanni was more and more cornered. This itself was a great effect, but the decent into hell (through climbing up the piano wall and disappearing into one of the holes) was even more exciting. As the ghost and Don Giovanni climbed, one of the holds the ghost was using came off, and the actor slid some of the way back towards the stage. Ironically the Don Giovanni saved him from falling the full 1.5 meters.

Far too enthusiastic- 'we just got moved to the 8th row' selfie
Far too enthusiastic- ‘we just got moved to the 8th row’ selfie

The experience in the theatre was enjoyable. Although the subscript, translating the singing was all in Russian, the actors were still easy to understand due to their use of physical movement and brilliant acting. The audience was well educated and respectful. They were quiet (apart from one phone which went off), and enthusiastically applauded at the end of the show.

This was a biggest contrast to the opera at the Bolshoi- the audience. The audience at the Bolshoi was in no way polite, respectful or well-voiced in the basic etiquette of performance arts. Throughout the performance you could hear and see wrappers, phones, the shuffling movement of clothes and chairs, talking, and even a clapping game of patticake. Almost more annoying than the noise was the light of phone screens which kept on distracting me. I honestly don’t  understand how you could go to the theatre and then spend the entire time staring at your phone.

Part of this was clearly a result of the broader audience, at the Bolshoi you have audiences from local and international regions, for whom the visit is a tourist experience rather than a cultural event. This was clear from the English and Russian subtitles, a larger array of clothing styles, many of which were more casual. The performance- Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Enchantress’ was a beautiful piece with traditional sets, costumes, and music that played on Russian themes. In crucial moments, the piece was acapella- a stunning rendition which allows focus, and surprises the viewer.

In a box at the Bolshoi

The story is a tragic one, in which an innkeeper unwittingly creates a family drama in the house of the landowners/ governor in charge of her land. Due to her kindness and beer, the governor falls in love with her, and breaks his wife’s heart, which causes their son to promise the innkeeper’s death. When the son goes to kill her, however, she reveals her love for him, affirms her chastity and speaks of his fathers violence and rage at her refusal- and he too falls for her in a twisted lovers triangle.  The two young lovers attempt to escape, but the Governor’s wife has a different plan, and by the end the two lovers lie dead on stage.

The set was mostly static but the animated river backdrop and the addition of ‘walls’ helped to create different spaces, including the castle of the local governor, and the home of the ‘enchantress’. The large choir not only sang wonderfully but had many hiding spots and were able to prance, sneak and march across stage, depending on the scene.  Still, the experience was slightly tarnished by the people around me. As a result I would suggest that those visitors more interested in actual cultural experience, rather than the novelty of the Bolshoi go to the Stanislavsky theatre. That said- the novelty experience is pulling me back to the Bolshoi again, and I have booked another ticket…

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