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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Director Teaches Bolshoi a New Tune

The sounds of "Fi-garo! Fi-garo!" are to resound again across the Bolshoi stage after an absence of 35 years.

Joachim Herz, one of Germany's top opera directors, has been invited to put on what is perhaps the most popular Mozart opera of all -- "The Marriage of Figaro." A fizzy comedy with some of Mozart's loveliest expressive music and complex ensembles, "Figaro" would seem an unusual choice for the Bolshoi Theater, more famous for its traditional Russian epics and grand chorus scenes.

In fact Herz said he was originally asked to do Richard Strauss's "Die Fledermaus," but then the theater changed its mind. Mozart has barely appeared on the Bolshoi's repertoire in recent decades, "Figaro" last being staged at the Bolshoi in 1960, and "Cos“ fan tutte" 10 years ago.

Herz is the man to fill that gap. Sitting in a small dim office in the bowels of the Bolshoi's myriad corridors backstage, Herz rummaged in his bag and pulled out a thermos of coffee and some biscuits. He had missed lunch and had a three-hour rehearsal coming up, but was well prepared in a way that only a resident of a former communist country can be.

From Dresden, Herz worked in all of the main opera houses of his home country and has directed productions all over the world. Two stints as director of Berlin's Komische Oper in the 1970s and again in the 1980s were broken by spells in Cologne and Leipzig. He then spent 10 years as chief director of the Dresden Staatsoper before going freelance in 1991.

He has already been tested at the Bolshoi, where he directed a production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" in 1963. It was the first Wagner the Bolshoi attempted in 20 years -- and the first "Flying Dutchman" in 60 years.

Herz jumped at the offer to return to Moscow and seems to glide through the challenge of producing Mozart at the Bolshoi as easily as he copes with the daily frustrations of life in Moscow.

Teaching the Bolshoi singers, who are steeped in the Russian recitative tradition of long solos and set pieces, the art of ensembles, where many voices sing at once, has been hard work, Herz admits.

"What we are doing is new for them," he explained. "It did not work the first day, but with work and practice we succeeded," he said, adding it took every day of the two-month rehearsal period -- for Herz unusually long, but for the Bolshoi unusually short.

Herz seems to combine a Germanic belief in hard work with a deep love and enthusiasm for his work. He threw out three singers who had not learned their parts and described dismissively several others who failed to show up at rehearsals because they were sick or busy elsewhere.

But his demeanor is cheerful and friendly. Tall, with thinning hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he has a ready laugh and gesticulates with energy when talking about opera.

The hard work was vindicated, he said, when the ensemble singing suddenly clicked during a three-hour rehearsal and the singers continued working among themselves during their break. "It was like a carnival," he said, laughing.

"I do not believe in nationalities and do not believe at all in 'Russian singers.' They are really good actors and singers, but for them it was a new task, to sing ensembles. In the end, they took to it with great pleasure."

Language was another problem. Herz had to work through an interpreter. On top of that, the theater management wanted the opera sung in Italian, demanding an extra and rare effort from the Bolshoi's singers. Only one singer can read Italian; the rest have had to learn their parts phonetically.

Herz insisted that all the singers understand the action at all times -- which meant three-way translations, with Herz himself translating each phrase from Italian to his native German, and then his interpreter translating from German to Russian.

He has also asked the theater management to suspend surtitles in Russian on a screen above the stage so that the audience can follow the action. But so far, no arrangements have been made.

Surtitles apart, Herz's attention to detail is indefatigable. He has, he says, gone back to Mozart's original score and the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. "It is a great shame that they lived so near to each other. It means they never wrote letters to each other. We have no deep record of their work together," he said.

With the complex character development and the turns and roundabouts of the plot, many elements of contemporary productions do not make sense, Herz said. Keeping close to the original text means he can eliminate unnecessary changes that have crept into the opera over time.

His detailed research has also influenced the scenery. Herz brought with him the resident artist from Dresden's Staatsoper, Peter Sikora, for the production. Together they have created sets that gradually open up as the opera progresses, starting with the narrow little servants' room that is to belong to Susannah and Figaro when they marry, moving to the more spacious bedroom of the Countess, and ending in the full nature of the park in the final act. Herz and Sikora took the unusual step of dividing the final act into two scenes, and gave the set in the final scene two pavilions. Both ideas came from Herz's research into the original libretto."If today you want to make a career, you have to turn an opera on its head. But I will not follow that," Herz said. "They used to think of me as innovator; now they think of me as a traditionalist. But in principle I have not changed."

Herz's production of "The Marriage of Figaro" is set to premiere on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Bolshoi Theater. For tickets, contact the theater box office at 292-9986; or Intourist, at 292-2677; or IPS ticket service, at 927-6982 or 927-6983.