Opera Now. Robert Thicknesse. Home sweet home

After a decade of innovation and experiment in a cramped, temporary space, Moscow's Helikon Opera returns to its completely redeveloped home in a characterful mansion near the Kremlin. Robert Thicknesse looks forward to a new era for opera in the Russian capital.

It seems like an age, but finally Helikon Opera in Moscow is returning to its original home, the eccentric old sprawling mansion a couple of blocks from the Kremlin on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. It is nine years since the theatre closed its doors here and decamped to cramped and not very welcoming premises on the Arbat, where the Helikon name has continued in spite of its reduced circumstances, providing what feels like a youthful alternative to the more established opera stages of the Russian capital.

The building work started out as a renovation job, but quickly became a wholesale makeover incorporating a new state-of-the-art theatre. The project stalled, however, when it ran into opposition from the former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. Relations have been happier under his successor Sergei Sobyanin, who took over in 2010 and the money for the rebuild finally flowed in from the city.

Artistic director Dmitri Bertman, who founded Helikon 26 years ago and continues to  run it and direct almost all its productions, is exhausted but relieved and overjoyed to be back home and with a brand-new 500-seat theatre in which to play - 'the most beautiful in Moscow', he tells me. Not only beautiful, but acoustically  brilliant too, he says, thanks to the international team who worked on it. The auditorium occupies the space where formerly the building's courtyard used to be, with the monumental gatehouse of the old building now featuring as a kind of Royal Box at the back of the auditorium. The whole structure, once open to the elements, is now enclosed.

The importance of Helikon, and thereby of Dmitri Bertman himself, was to reintroduce the idea of opera as theatre to the moribund scene in the immediate post-Soviet period. Oddly, in the land of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, opera had remained (or returned to being, after some early experiments in the 1920s and '30s), a costume-concert comfort art, unquestioning, preserved in aspic, with the same productions running for decades at the Bolshoi and other theatres and performed by rote by bored singers and orchestras - and the waste was all the greater when you consider what singers they had.

Bertman's immediate inspiration was the English National Opera in its 'Powerhouse' heyday in the 1980s and '90s, which had stirred up the opera scene in London. 

Directing all the shows himself, Bertman reinvigorated the repertoire - even operas  as well-known as Aida and Carmen hadn't been performed in Moscow for decades — and  brought theatrical life to an artform that had largely become a matter of massive,'realistic' sets and highly unrealistic acting.There were some very striking  shows among Bertman's productions, too: his Carmen was an early attempt to rethink  the dramaturgy of the piece; a time-travelling Mazeppa was an eye-opening version of Tchaikovsky's opera; Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites provided an enthralling Russian view of tyranny and martyrdom.

Things have changed in Moscow in the past 25 years, and now Helikon is far from the only place where you can catch modern-style opera; even the Bolshoi - where Richard Jones's ENO production of Rodelinda opens in December — has entered the 21st century and championed the young director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Alexander Titel's intelligent and highly theatrical productions at the Stanislavsky Musical Theatre have brought a new dimension to large-stage opera, and there have been flashes of good drama at the Novaya Opera too, notably the recent Salome there. But there's still a role for Helikon's individual style in  city - unlike London — there is a population with enough cultural eagerness and curiosity to support a number of opera houses, each with a different ethos. 

Contrary to a lot of bad-news coverage in the Western press. Bertman is enthusiastic about the cultural and political atmosphere in Moscow, and the new cultural supremo Alexander Kibovsky, seems keen to continue the work of his predecessor Sergei Kapkov in raising the city's cultural profile and making it generally a more human-friendly place to live. The new theatre opens with a series of gala performances between 2 and 8 November in the main Stravinsky I lall - so called partly because the city has no concert space named after the great composer. There are two other much smaller halls: the Pokrovsky, a Rococo room in duck-egg blue, and the royal blue Princess Shakhovskaya, surrounded with classical columns. Thereafter, Bertman has two new productions planned: the first is Rimsky-Korsakov's epic Sadko, opening on 10 November and, from 23 December, a reconstruction of Stanislavsky's 1922 production of Eugene Onegin, a legendary show the impresario first put on in his nearby home on Leontyevsky Lane. 

Robert Thicknesse, Opera Now magazine (UK), November 2015 issue


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