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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi Has Last First Night Before Repairs

Amid all the turbulence in the land, the opening of the Bolshoi Theater's new season Tuesday night provided a reassuring measure of stability with the traditional opening-night opera, "Ivan Susanin." This opera by Glinka, with its story of personal sacrifice in behalf of a Russia in need, bears a message that always seems timely and whose power never seems to change.

Yet change is under way even at the Bolshoi. If all goes according to plan, the next opening night in the venerable building on Teatralnaya Ploshchad will be in 2001, when the theater reopens after renovations.

The thought that the theater will be closed for so long a time inevitably brings to mind the situation in London, where plans to refurbish the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, brought about an unpleasant and ongoing mess. As with Covent Garden, the renovations will be far-reaching; among other things, the plans call for improving technical conditions backstage, strengthening foundational supports and restoring antique decor. (Although the building's roof was a victim of last June's hurricane, the damage was minor and was quickly remedied.)

Fortunately, the Bolshoi management seems to have a handle on one issue its English counterpart bungled -- where to perform while the repair work is under way. A new 1,000-seat theater is now under construction immediately adjacent to the current theater and is supposed to be ready in the spring. When it is finished -- and only when it is finished -- will performances in the big house, which seats 2,155, be suspended.

All sensible enough, so long as the money holds up and the city government, which is in charge of the construction, stays the course. Eventually, the company should have two theaters, with one nicely suitable for smaller works. In the meantime some large-scale operas may have to be shoehorned into the new theater, for there are no plans for a return to the mammoth Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin, where the company occasionally performed until 1989. Look for more "Bohemes" and fewer "Khovanshchinas."

Touring opportunities will undoubtedly look even more attractive during the interim than they already do. Unfortunately, one hoped-for tour this season fell through, leaving something of a gap in the company's plans. A new production of Verdi's "Otello," with the legendary but reclusive Carlos Kleiber conducting, was planned for this fall but apparently foundered over terms for taking it to Germany. Those Deutsche marks must be looking pretty good about now. The absence of "Otello" means that the first part of the season will see no new opera productions, but a new "Carmen" staged by Yury Lyubimov and conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky is planned for later, as is the premiere of "The Captain's Daughter" by the St. Petersburg composer Mikail Kollontai-Ermolaeva. Dmitry Bertman will stage the new opera, which is based on Pushkin's novella of the same name.

The idea that Bertman, the iconoclastic artistic director of the Helikon Opera, has signed up for this project shows that the Bolshoi really is trying to shake off its staid image, an image that productions like Leonid Bartov's ancient staging of "Ivan Susanin" can only help sustain. Such productions are part of the Russian heritage, however, and there is much to be said for keeping a few carefully selected specimens around. Peter Williams's sets still have eye appeal, and judging from the number of times it applauded the sets, Tuesday's audience thought so too.

The familiar cast for "Ivan," better known outside Russian by its original title, "A Life for the Tsar," was headed by Vladimir Matorin, in sonorous voice as the peasant who saves the tsar by tricking the Polish enemy. His Ivan was aptly rough-hewn at times but became powerfully emotional when the character recognizes that his hour has come. As Ivan's daughter Antonida, Julia Zamyatina sang clearly but needed more vocal color. Vladimir Tscherbakov contributed an energetic, solidly sung Sobinin, and Alexandra Durseneva's trim mezzo was effective in the trouser role of Vanya.

One of the opera's most appealing qualities is its characterization of the Poles with their native dance music. It makes for some splendid choruses as well as a memorable ballet sequence in the second act, which found Nina Semizorova in excellent form for the waltz.

The conductor was Mark Ermler, who in June became Bolshoi's principal conductor or "artistic director of the Bolshoi orchestra," as the position is formally known. Ermler, who has conducted Russian opera in leading international houses, made his Bolshoi debut in 1956 but remains vigorous and led a handsomely played, fluently coordinated performance. He did not manage to conceal the opera's longueurs, however, nor did the numerous cuts that have long been observed in this production.