Long live the Russian revolution
Amid scenes of wonderment the visit of the Kirov climaxed this week with an awe-inspiring War and Peace. For the third time this century Russian visitors have opened our eyes and set new standards in opera and ballet.
by Norman Lebrecht / July 12, 2000
WITH the outbreak of War and Peace at Covent Garden, the last slab in the monumental Kirov season has been put in place, and it becomes possible to assess the project in its historic perspective – for historic is the only word.
Three times in the 20th century the Russians have come to teach us a lesson in the lively arts. In May 1907, Serge Diaghilev’s new-music concerts in Paris led, a year later, to Boris Godunov at the Opéra. Ballet, his third and boldest venture, gripped Paris in 1909 and exploded outwards to London and the rest of Europe, altering the prevalent perception of dance as something stately and erotic.
The art that Diaghilev imported was feral and cerebral, a post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunst of physical and intellectual ideas involving new composers (Stravinsky, Prokofiev), designers (Benois, Bakst, Roerich) and performer-choreographers (Nijinsky, Massine) – all operating from within an impregnably secure tradition.
The second Russian revolution was the arrival of the Bolshoi at Covent Garden in October 1956, the first Soviet dance troupe to be allowed out since 1917. In the interim, English ballet, with Margot Fonteyn as its star, had conquered America and imagined itself to be equal to the best. The Bolshoi, with Galina Ulanova, changed all that. On the opening night, Fonteyn was in tears. ‘What a lot we have to learn,’ wailed one critic. The ovations lasted 90 minutes.
After 24 nights at Covent Garden and three in Croydon, the Bolshoi were whisked to Heathrow and flown home, minutes before news broke of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Cultural contacts went into a deep freeze, but a seed had sprouted in the mind of Ninette de Valois, who snapped up the first available defector and encouraged Rudolf Nureyev to change English dancing for good and all.
And now we have seen the third wave, a 500-strong Kirov company performing five ballet and five opera programmes over a five-week period, amid scenes of wonderment unwitnessed since Nureyev’s ROH debut in February 1962. All tickets to the Kirov Ballet sold out and an extra matinee was added for children from poverty-line Tower Hamlets. Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko and the unstaged Rimsky-Korsakov Snow Maiden sold more slowly, but the Kirov Opera’s uptake was over 90 per cent, and the atmosphere has been electrifying throughout.
People paid £17.50 to stand through five hours of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and up to £150 for a seat. Corporate faces were few, and the bars sold more minerals than champagne. Nothing in the ROH reopening season matched the sense of occasion and audience involvement that has attended every performance of the compelling Kirov ensemble.
Before we examine the sources of the Kirov’s vitality, let us give thanks that they came at all. There were moments in the past year when Covent Garden, faced with a collapsing Russian economy, refused to accept the Kirov’s credit and demanded cash guarantees. Harry Fitzgibbons, a London investor who had got to know the Kirov while on business in St Petersburg, went to see Michael Kaiser, the ROH executive director. ‘What’s the minimum deposit?’ he asked. ‘£350,000,’ said Kaiser. ‘I put my house on the line,’ a relieved Fitzgibbons recalled last week.
There were other close calls when the London hotel where the Kirov Ballet were due to stay demanded £480,000 up-front and HM Customs & Excise required a £300,000 bond before they let the sets and costumes on to our shores. ‘It has been a learning process,’ says Fitzgibbons, but the results have exceeded all expectations.
When the last sponsor’s cheque is cashed – and sponsorship was hard to come by – the Kirov will take home between £750,000 and £1 million in profits, having paid Covent Garden £100,000 (plus VAT) in weekly rental along with a contribution to staff costs. It also gave the ROH a 50-50 split of last week’s £700,000 gala, and plans are well advanced for a Kirov return to London in 2002.
Next month the Kirov Ballet reopen at the ROH while the Opera settle in at the Salzburg Festival. In the autumn they take War and Peace to La Scala, next spring to the Met in New York. The world is their stage, and wherever they go, other opera and ballet companies are made to blush and raise their sights on meeting the technical rigour and unyielding commitment of the Russians.
What has sustained them through the century is a peculiar blend of collective outlook and blind conviction. While the West has made a fetish of individualism, Russians – before, during and since Communism – have regarded communal effort as the highest form of human endeavour.
In the Kirov, stars are treated much the same as staff singers. Anna Netrebko, who sings Natasha in War and Peace, will alternate without protest or qualitative decline with two other house sopranos. There are rivalries within the Kirov, as in any other group, but only one or two singers have quit. The rest feel personally enhanced by the company’s soaring prestige.
In the West, by contrast, there is no such thing any more as an opera company with full-time, long-term soloists. Singers come and go like birds of prey and company spirit has been dashed by their pecuniary greed and purpled vanity. Dancers, too, are loosening their ties. Sylvie Guillem is named as a principal guest artist of the Royal Ballet, a title that underlines her detachedness.
In Russia, where labour is cheap and there are few happier ways of earning a living than singing or dancing, the Kirov can afford to keep hundreds of artists on the payroll. Whether collectivism can be preserved if the economy improves or crashes remains to be seen, but the company’s tireless director, Valery Gergiev, has seen it through the political turmoil of the past 12 years and is confident of holding the line and raising the standard still higher.
Much has been written about Gergiev’s prodigious energy, blazing charisma and dynamic conducting. On the eve of the ROH season, he was in Rotterdam watching the Euro 2000 football final. After the final whistle, he flew to Paris to watch the all-night revelries, finding a hotel bed at five in the morning and returning to the airport three hours later for a flight to London and a day-long rehearsal. Past midnight the next day, he was still going strong.
Conducting, he once told me, ‘is not tiring – it’s only stress that wears me down’. Gergiev’s name has been linked with many top jobs, but his loyalty to the Kirov is paramount and he brazenly exploits his Western contacts to the company’s advantage. Some accuse him of being a dictator, but his rule is benign and his victims few.
Gergiev’s strength derives from the unshakeable certainty of his artistic convictions. Khovanshchina, he declared over a post-opera meal, is ‘a masterpiece’. War and Peace he sees as a Russian equivalent to Wagner’s Ring. To Western eyes, in the cold light of day, the flaws in both works are visible. Gergiev, however, does not permit himself a scintilla of doubt and his rescue of these long-beached mammals has the spiritual power of a papal bull.
Friends have long given up asking how long he can continue at this pace.
‘Catch what you can, wherever you can,’ warns one close associate. ‘We may never see the like again.’ At Covent Garden this summer, he has taken up Diaghilev’s mantle and remade history.
Long live the Russian revolution