London - Minsk


A little more than a century ago, Salome routinely ran into trouble with the censors, and sometimes with the church as well (its first Metropolitan Opera performance in 1907 was also its last until 1934; one of those invited to lead a prayer meeting in protest against the work was the visiting Edward Elgar, who declined on the grounds that Strauss was ‘the greatest genius of the age’). But history has a habit of repeating itself, and when Minsk’s first ever production was announced last year the increasingly powerful Orthodox church took exception – different accounts of the story have circulated, but seem to boil down to the fact that the opening night had originally been scheduled for the eve of St John’s Day, and since John the Baptist is a central figure in the opera the church viewed it as a provocation. But there being no such thing as bad publicity, even though the production had opened in October the BOLSHOY THEATRE OF BELARUS was still packed at this performance on December 20.

Directed by the theatre’s resident régisseur, Mikhail Pandzhavidze, it was in many ways a surprising production; if by the end it still felt as if some dramaturgical loose ends had been left untied, nevertheless one could only admire Pandzhavidze’s busy imagination. In what was a first in my experience, Salome gained a prologue – a choreographed version of Also sprach Zarathustra, no less. Perhaps it was the prospect of Nietzsche’s ‘Gott ist tot’ that had alarmed the church, but in fact the tone poem was choreographed (by Konstantin Kuzniatsou and Yuliya Dziatko) as something of a religious tussle, with various pieces of iconography appearing in the design (Garri Gummel). Jokanaan appeared at the start, looking like a Biblical version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer. By the end of the tone poem, an impressive private cruiser had docked and the prophet had been dropped into its small on-deck swimming pool, which became the cistern in the opera. Many in the opera’s cast – for example, the soldiers, portrayed as modern militia – were also already introduced, and soon the stage was full of an assortment of characters, with Herod’s party guests including a sheikh and a beefeater. Pandzhavidze frequently subverted the male-gaze aspect of the work and made Herod himself more of a focal point than usual. The moment that Jokanaan’s head was apparently delivered on a silver platter accompanied by candles and champagne, only for the cloche to be lifted on an empty plate, was strong theatre.

Another surprising point was made by linking these two works: the musical mood of the end of Also sprach (1896) is actually very close to that of the start of Salome (1905) and they flowed seamlessly into each other. Although the Bolshoy Theatre’s orchestra does not have a tradition of playing Strauss, it gave a compelling account of the score under the baton of the music director Viktor Ploskina, building up the expressionist intensity. Ploskina also highlighted the extent to which little snatches of dance infuse the whole score. Ekaterina Golovleva was a strong Salome, her soprano riding the orchestra with ease where necessary, yet nowhere did she need to force and she found more intimacy in the music than many interpreters do. Stanislav Trifonov was an imposing Jokanaan, Elena Salo a warm-toned Page, and Aksana Yakushevich projected well as Herodias. Even with a smallish tenor, Dmitry Pyanov held the attention as Herod. An unusual yet exciting Salome, then, and one more satisfying than either of the productions currently in the repertoire of the London houses.

The same might be said of Minsk’s new La Bohème, a less satisfying evening (December 17) musically but one based on a stimulating, thought-provoking production. The staging, by Moscow’s Alexander Titel, was ultra-modern and minimalist, another example of Minsk’s endeavour to update its repertoire. The open-plan – not to say empty – stage might have seemed spare and alienating to some, but this non-realistic approach put the focus back on the characters themselves. There were raked, plastic sports-hall seats for the Café Momus, and black wheelie bins at the Barrière d’Enfer. The artistic milieu was evoked in Picasso-esque sculptures, some costumes in Act 2 that seemed to recall Chagall (Belarus’s greatest painter), and painted abstract cityscapes that changed from act to act.

The empty stage disadvantaged the voices, and some of the singers seemed small for this big theatre – not least the visiting Kazakh tenor Medet Chotobayev, trying hard as an ardent, bright-toned Rodolfo. Both Marcello (Vladimir Gromov) and Mimì (Marta Danusevich) also seemed to be casualties of this yet gave decent performances. Schaunard (who in this production announces himself – and his musical profession – with a tuba) was firmly projected by Denis Yantsevich, and Colline was voiced with dark solidity by Andrey Valentiy. It was hard to judge Klavdiya Potemkina’s Musetta since the tempo set for her waltz was unfairly slow, and indeed the most surprising aspect of the evening was the lack of theatrical tension in Ploskina’s conducting. Given the Italo-Russian slant of the theatre’s repertoire, one might have expected him to be more comfortable in Puccini than Strauss, yet his pacing was slack for such a conversational piece – the music seemed to pause between sentences – and there was little Puccinian muscle in the orchestra. Yet with Titel’s most thought-provoking coup coming at the very end – stage hands wheeled off Mimì’s bed, followed by her friends as if in a funeral procession, and by the final bars the empty stage was being mopped – one emerged from the performance still stirred by Bohème.