St Petersburg Chamber Opera
Public life is changing fast in Russia, and like all other media, the arts are increasingly put to the service of unchecked nationalist propaganda. I was in St Petersburg last week and attended the press conference and dress rehearsal for a new opera production, Crimea. Both were quite chilling, not only for the extreme rightwing messages being put across, but also for the fact the whole enterprise was presented as if it were business as usual, with no hint of dissent (even from the press), and not even a suggestion that any other interpretation of the Crimea conflict could be possible.
Echoes of the Stalin era resonate through this production, but that’s entirely deliberate. It is based on Sevastopoltsy, written in 1946 by Marian Koval. The original is about the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-2. Clearly, the subject of the original opera serves the new production well, but so too does the Socialist Realist score, all patriotic marches and mass songs. In Koval’s opera, the Soviet stand against the Nazi aggressors is compared with similar events in the Crimea War (the Russians lost that one, of course, a fact this opera chooses to brush over).
For the new production, the opera has been renamed to the more apposite Crimea, and the libretto completely rewritten. The work now takes the two previous conflicts as models for the more recent one. Comparisons between1942 and 2014 are easily drawn. The Germans remain the aggressors, or among them at least. Angela Merkel is among the vilified politicians, and footage is shown of her on a screen that only a few minutes earlier showed Luftwaffe bombers. Comparisons between the Russian leaders of the three centuries are more problematic, but are overcome by the introduction of a sharp-suited modern-day narrator, Putin in all but name.
The production is being staged at the St Petersburg Chamber Opera, a small company based in a large town house near the Mariinsky. It is the brainchild of the company’s artistic director, Yuri Alexandrov. He held court at the press conference ahead of the dress rehearsal, and expounded at some length the motivations behind the project. There was a lot of political rhetoric here, all coming from a position of absolute certainty and conviction. Crimea belongs to Russia and always has, that was a given. The new Ukrainian administration didn’t get too much of a hard time. Russia’s quarrel is not with the Ukrainians, Alexandrov explained, it is with the Americans. And the Europeans? They are just blind. Despite the clear propaganda aims of this project, Alexandrov seemed convinced that he was merely presenting “the truth” and that there was no polemic dimension to it at all.
The Creative Team. Alexandrov second from the right.
The new work is described as an “opera-meeting”, and Alexandrov was keen to present it as a radical genre-busting enterprise, in which the audience play a crucial role in the performance. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The performance is staged in the round, bringing all the blood and gore closer to the audience than is comfortable. There is some Q&A, but it amounts to the audience shouting “da” or “net” on cue in response to political slogans. And for the mass song that forms the finale, a dozen or so cast members planted in the audience suddenly run on to join the chorus, as if to imply general consent on the part of all present.
Alexandrov clearly assumes his views are shared by everybody involved. Certainly, the cast and crew entered into the project with a rare enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera performance sung and acted with as much commitment and passion as this. There are many children in this production (used for emotional manipulation purposes of course) and Alexandrov explained that many of them had postponed their holidays to appear. They won’t be visiting the Crimea this summer, he mused, but their work here would ensure that they will always be able to do so in the future.
Considering the contentious views he was presenting in the press conference, Alexandrov got a very easy time in the questions afterwards. One journalist asked if references to Stalin in the original had been replaced directly with references to Putin, on the grounds that the syllable structure and rhyme could be retained. Alexandrov responded with approval to the idea (there aren’t any references to Stalin in the original so it wasn’t an option) and explained that this performance was intended as the just the first step. Hopefully, he said, the company would then take the show to Moscow. There is a point near the end that would be ideal for Putin to give an address as part of the performance. Then we could have a real conversation, he said, not just a theatrical one.
The action takes place on a map of Crimea.
The modern-day narrator. Let’s call him “Putin”.
Nurses carrying bloodied bandages, and distributing them to the audience.
Things are good for the ethnic Russians, before the Turks/Germans/Ukrainians arrive.
War and pestilence.
The Soviet/Russian Navy restores order.
Refugees, on their way to Rastov probably.
Maidan protests, or riots rather.
The children implore “Putin” to help them.
This girl cries “Must we be forced to give up our native language?” then puts the microphone under the nose of an audience member for a response.
Don’t worry, “Putin” won’t let that happen.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. He’s the bad guy.
The Tartars. Life is easy for them now they are protected by the Russians.
Crimeans celebrate Russian takeover.
Grand Finale. “The uniforms of the Russian troops are like angels' wings protecting us.”
Front page of the Metro (Petersburg’s free commuter paper, state-owned of course) the next day. The article inside was headed with a quote from Alexandrov “Our position is clear: Crimea is ours”. http://www.metronews.ru/novosti/operu-pro-krym-pokazhut-v-peterburge/Tpongh---C7kwWLGRZPS/