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The word "bolshoi" means "big" in Russian, but the Bolshoi Theater opened its 230th season in a theater that accommodates only 860 and, moreover, is expected to be its main performing venue for several seasons to come. The Bolshoi's auxiliary theater, known as the New Stage, was the site on Saturday of "Madama Butterfly" in a production by the Texan designer and director Robert Wilson, while a few steps across Theater Square, the main house sat shrouded in scaffolding. Work on its long-delayed renovation has stalled before it even could begin in earnest, as theater officials and government bureaucrats haggle over an extraordinary price tag of nearly $1 billion. At least the Bolshoi has a place of its own for performances, which could not be said for London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, when it underwent renovations in the late 1990s. Although the New Stage was always expected to shoulder a burden during the renovation period, it was built primarily as a place for intimate works and for innovative productions thought by some to be inconsistent with a big house's image.
After years of isolation, the Bolshoi is now on the circuit of international opera directors. Controversial stagings are accepted in stride more so, perhaps, than at the Metropolitan Opera, where Wilson's production of "Lohengrin" unleashed a storm of booing in 1998. The Wilson "Butterfly" was first seen at the New Stage in June. Next month brings a new "Magic Flute" by Graham Vick, which the Bolshoi promises will be quite different from his recent effort in Salzburg.
Wilson initially staged Puccini's opera contrasting Japanese and Western cultures in 1993. But ideas held by important directors often gain depth and refinement with subsequent productions, which may help explain the magic of this "Butterfly." Wilson's static productions may not be for everybody, but the stage picture here is so unfailingly beautiful, the action so sparse yet tellingly conceived that you hate to take your eyes away for a second. Characters move slowly but in different ways, with short, ceremonial steps often characterizing the Japanese. Frida Parmeggiani's costumes make subtle distinctions as well but share an unfailing elegance.
The effect is to move the drama onto an abstract, tragic plane where certain details the unreality of a geisha girl expecting fidelity from an American naval officer, for instance recede into insignificance. On the other hand, Puccini's dramatic structure is surely delineated. Wilson heightens expectations for forthcoming scenes by having new characters appear prematurely and make their way slowly to the center of the action. And his all-important lighting contributes as well, changing alarmingly, for instance, at the chilling moment when the American consul Sharpless asks Butterfly what she would do if Lieutenant Pinkerton were never to return. As with its choice of directors, the Bolshoi has become more international in its casting. The Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu sings compellingly, though not with ideal steadiness, as Butterfly and functions impressively within Wilson's concept to emerge as a genuinely tragic figure. I will not soon forget the pose she strikes at the end of Act II and holds seemingly forever chin up, arm outstretched as she waits in utter confidence for her lover. Roman Muravitsky, the Pinkerton, is the Bolshoi's all-purpose dramatic tenor, but the voice sounds worn and does not flow easily. Andrey Grigoryev is a bland but smooth-voiced Sharpless, and Elena Novak's handsome mezzo makes for an excellent Suzuki. The Bolshoi's chief conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, offers another example of the good work he achieves in the pit. The opening "Butterfly" is the first of 280 opera and ballet performances Bolshoi expects to offer this season, down from an unusually high number of 500 last season but roughly in line with figures before the New Stage opened in 2002. Starting next month, the company will begin giving some performances in the mammoth Kremlin Palace Theater.
But the looming question is how to jump-start work on the 150- year-old theater following the announcement last month by Russia's finance minister, Gherman Gref, that the costs all of which were expected to be borne by the federal government are too high. "It might be easier and cheaper to demolish the theater and build a new opera house," a Bolshoi spokesman acknowledged, "but the building is a symbol of the greatness of Russian culture."
The theater's electrical system and backstage facilities are in urgent need of replacement, but what sets the Bolshoi apart from renovation projects by other opera houses is that the theater sits on top of an underground river and its foundations are sagging as a result. Currently the plan is undergoing another round of cost estimates, then the theater will probably be forced to prioritize the elements of the plan. But don't bet on the theater meeting the target of 2008 for a reopening.
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