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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Opera Reborn Anew




The operatic boy wonder of Moscow, the Helikon Opera's Dmitry Bertman, is set to strike again, this time with a staging of Dmitry Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," scheduled to premiere Saturday.


In the 10 years since he founded the Helikon, the 32-year-old Bertman has done much to enliven Moscow's operatic scene. Setting the warhorses of the repertoire on their ear, he has usually provoked controversy, but nearly always provided a fascinating spectacle, full of fresh insights and a wealth of food for thought.


To Bertman, "Lady Macbeth" seems the perfect opera to celebrate both the Helikon's 10th anniversary and the end of the century. "It stands at the very center of 20th-century opera in Russia and even of 20th-century opera in Europe, where it has been done much more often than here."


Indeed, the version of the opera that Bertman brings to the Helikon has, but for a single performance two seasons ago by visitors from the central Russian city of Saratov, been absent from the Moscow stage for more than 60 years.


"Lady Macbeth" had its premiere in 1934 in Leningrad and immediately went on to huge success both at home and in the West. Two years later, however, after a stinging denunciation in the newspaper, Pravda, initiated by Josef Stalin, the opera abruptly disappeared from the Soviet stage. In the mid-1950s, Shostakovich revised "Lady Macbeth," toning down its text and adding orchestral interludes. Rechristened "Yekaterina Ismailova," it returned to Moscow in 1962.


"The original version is more honest and is free of censorship," says Bertman. "Also, in changing the text, Shostakovich took out most of the sex." Sex aplenty is promised in Bertman's staging.


Based on a story by the 19th-century writer Nikolai Leskov, the opera tells a harrowing tale of passion, love and eventual death in the depths of provincial Russia. Describing it as a "tragic satire" or "satirical tragedy," Bertman has thrown away all elements of folklore and local color and set his "Lady Macbeth" outside of any specific time and place, putting emphasis on what he calls the work's "superb dramaturgy."


To handle Shostakovich's complicated score, the Helikon has engaged one of Moscow's leading conductors, Vladimir Ponkin, who several seasons ago brought new life to the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater in a brief tenure there as musical director.


"Lady Macbeth" will be Bertman's only staging at the Helikon this season. But still ahead, in May, lies a production of the same work's classical antecedent, Giuseppe Verdi's "Macbeth," entrusted to French director Denis Krief, whose puzzling version of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" premiered at the theater in 1998.


Meanwhile, the Helikon troupe pays a pair of brief visits to France, its third and fourth in less than a year, once again daring to perform French opera in its homeland, as it did with acclaim last summer at the Montpelier and a very special appearance at the Evian Festival, where the distinguished cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has agreed to lead the troupe in Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus." Later in the year, Helikon makes its second trip to the United States, following up on a debut there last October with Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades."


"We started out as a sort of Zhiguli," says Bertman, "but we're on our way to becoming a luxury sedan."


Bertman himself seems well on his way to a major international career in opera. In May, he is due to direct Puccini's "Tosca" in the Belgian capital, Brussels, while next September will find him in Vienna, Austria, staging Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." Further ahead lies the prospect of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" at the Toronto Opera, where earlier this season he produced a radical "La Traviata."


For all of the Helikon's and its director's world travels, Bertman intends to keep both the troupe and himself firmly planted in Moscow. As proof, he cites the company's current search for a second, larger house, to meet an ever-growing demand for tickets and provide space for productions beyond the physical limitations of its diminutive premises on Bolshaya Nikitskaya.


"Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" is scheduled for performance at Helikon Opera on Jan. 29 and 30 and Feb. 1, 2 and 4-6, all at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the theater's box office, 19 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa. Metro Arbatskaya, Tverskaya. Tel. 290-0971/6592/2306.