Changes at the Kirov Opera Mirror Russia
The company seeks closer ties to the West while preserving and upgrading its native repertoire
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
THIS city has the feel of what Berlin must have been like between the wars. Inflation is rampant and poverty widespread. Politics are conducted in the street with a mix of rambunctiousness and desperation; there are ominous signs of anti-Semitism, isolationism, and resurgent Stalinism. Much of the beautiful 18th- and 19th-century city is dirty and in decay, but at the same time, the streets are bustling and vital. In spite of it all, creativity thrives amid anarchy, even at the Kirov Opera.Skip to next paragraph
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In a city changing as quickly as St. Petersburg, Russia, one might expect to find the opera neglected, or cast aside as obsolete. Happily, the opposite is true.
While the young artists who gather outside the opera during intermissions sense themselves at the center of a historical moment, the opera itself is looking back to the great tradition of Russian music. Under the dynamic leadership of artistic director Valery Gergiev, the Kirov is mining the native operatic repertoire and coming up with works that are startlingly relevant to present-day Russia. Among these is a new production of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's ``Sadko,'' the cornerstone of a festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that composer's birth (March 6, 1844). The festival is slated to run here Jan. 28 to Feb. 7.
Allegory of capitalism
``Sadko'' is a delicate, ironic, and subtle interweaving of the folklore, magic, and legend that explores issues central to the Russian character - ambivalence about Eastern roots and Western leanings, and a deep-rooted suspicion of change. If one leaves aside its numerous digressions, the plot boils down to an allegory of capitalism and its obstacles in Russian society.
The title character of ``Sadko'' is an adventurous and prescient minstrel-entrepreneur who challenges the hidebound merchants of Novgorod to support his attempts to trade with far-off countries. They mock his daring plans, but Sadko's enterprise is finally realized when he nets golden fish from the sea.
Yet Sadko runs into a further obstacle when he fails to pay taxes to the Sea King. This lands him, literally, at the bottom of the ocean. Several plot twists later, Sadko is once again on dry land, the power of the Sea King is dissipated, and he rejoins his wife as a successful merchant and scion of Novgorod.
Bureaucratic nightmares and cultural sluggishness are, of course, familiar themes to Russian business people and Western investors. And, at the time of this production's unveiling, the systematic failure of Russian businesses to pay taxes was being hailed as one of the crises confronting the Russian government. When this production was reviewed, in mid-May last year, a new law requiring cash registers and better accounting - to facilitate taxing the myriad new businesses - was being implemented.
Whether or not the current experiment with a market economy will end as optimistically as ``Sadko remains to be seen. The ability of the Kirov to mount this production is, however, a small but compelling sign of hope.