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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Great Opera From Both Ends of the Spectrum

In the continuing debate between tradition and reform in opera, Boris Pokrovsky occupies a rare position: The 85-year-old director is Russia's principal spokesman for both sides.


Pokrovsky spent half a century in one of the world's most influential musical posts; as general director of opera at the Bolshoi Theater, he staged the major European classics and collaborated with the great Russian composers of the 20th century. Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were often seen at his rehearsals, watching in fascination as Pokrovsky brought their works to life on the stage.


Later, he would make his reputation as an innovator, at a theater he founded.


Pokrovsky's relationship with the Bolshoi began in the winter of 1942. Hitler's troops were encroaching on the city as Sergei Prokofiev, wearing an overcoat, played the young director his newly finished opera based on Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Premiered in Lenin-grad, Pokrovsky's staging won him the first of his four Stalin Prizes. In the years to follow, Pokrovsky's name became synonymous with opera at Russia's most prestigious theater.


But the Pokrovsky era at the Bolshoi was not without controversy. Tensions came to a head in 1982 when Pokrovsky was asked to leave the theater. "I was fired," he proclaims, because of a difference of opinion with some of the Bolshoi's senior singers over repertoire. They demanded a lighter repertoire including the works of Mascagni, Massenet and Leoncavallo, sung in European languages to prepare the troupe for touring. Pokrovsky wouldn't budge: "I admit it, I like these operas. They are good operas, but not for the Bolshoi Theater, a theater that has its own traditions, repertoire and obligations."


But even after being fired, Pokrovsky he was still occasionally asked back to help tend the flame of Russian opera burning at the Bolshoi.


His latest project, with friend and colleague Mstislav Rostropovich, is a restaging of Modest Mussorgsky's monumental "Khovanshchina," which premiered in early November. The opera has run at the Bolshoi for decades, but Pokrovsky rejected the standard, subtly bowdlerized orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov in favor of Shostakovich's more accurate rendering, with its enormous choruses of simple folk and Old Believers. Pokrovsky views the restaging as a necessary step in maintaining what he terms the "traditions" of a national opera house. "I am a conservative, a traditionalist. I consider that the Bolshoi is tradition." He is careful, however, to explain that this does not mean he favors standing still. On the contrary, for Pokrovsky, "tradition is the eternal movement of the principles upon which a theater is founded."


Pokrovsky fell in love with these principles when he was still a boy, living in Moscow and attending performances at the Bolshoi. Once he became its director, however, he began to feel restricted by them. In 1972, he founded the Moscow Chamber Musical Theater, his own experimental opera house, where he gained world renown as an innovator in musical drama.


In 1974 his newly formed troupe set up shop in a basement on Leningradsky Prospekt. The previous occupants had recently been evicted as posing a fire hazard, and it took some of Pokrovsky's more influential friends, Shostakovich among them, to convince the authorities that his theater would be less likely to catch fire than the beer hall the earlier tenants had planned to open there. The move was ostensibly temporary, but the theater remains in the basement to this day. In this unlikely location -- a tiny hall with no curtain, no orchestra pit, low ceilings and dead acoustics -- Pokrovsky the experimenter has created one of the world's most exciting opera venues.


The theater's repertoire spans three centuries, consisting entirely of operas that have seldom or never been staged in Russia. These include contemporary works, many of which were composed for Pokrovsky's troupe: a restaging of Shostakovich's "Nose," which was condemned during the Stalinist era, and previously ignored classics, such as the first Moscow staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." It was this unique repertoire that originally earned the theater the label "experimental."


The experiments, however, don't stop here. Against the background of musical drama as it is practiced in Russia, almost every aspect of the theater is a challenge to convention.


In the absence of an orchestral pit, Pokrovsky hides the orchestra behind screens and props, most often behind the action on the stage, creating the radical condition in which there is no eye contact between the conductor and the singers. "He doesn't want anything to interfere, to distract the audience from the drama," says Anatoly Levin, an inspired conductor who has been at the theater for more than a decade. While this arrangement occasionally causes the singers to be out of phase with the orchestra, Pokrovsky considers this a necessary casualty in his crusade to strip away all of the traditional barriers between the drama on the stage and the people in the hall.


The distance between audience and performer often disappears altogether, as during Schnittke's scathing and controversial opera about the Soviet era, "Life With an Idiot." When the protagonist makes a trip to the local insane asylum, the action suddenly leaps off the stage. The hall is quickly encircled by flagged ropes, and, as singers roam through the aisles singing about the "hall full of idiots," it dawns on the audience members that they have themselves been transformed into residents of that institution.


This elimination of distance allows Pokrovsky to use a much more subtle set of tools than he does at the Bolshoi. His theater is one of small gestures, of winks and whispers, which create an intimate atmosphere that is impossible in larger halls.


The fact that he is the staunch upholder of tradition at one theater and one of opera's greatest renegades at another does not strike Pokrovsky as paradoxical. "For me, the Bolshoi Theater is a temple," he says.


If this is so, then the Moscow Chamber Musical Theater is Boris Pokrovsky's personal playground, less solemn and more exciting than the Bolshoi, both for him and for his audience.