New Age Bolshoi
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New Age Bolshoi

With Russia's new elections expected to bring many changes in the country, I'm reminded of my recent trip there, when I was surprised by some "new" sights _ the image of a dog which was an exact replica of prime minister Vladimir Putin's face, at the old and grand Hermitage Museum, the revolutionary production of an old, well-known opera, at none other than the newly-renovated Bolshoi Theatre.

An evening at the Bolshoi, was vibrant proof that the $700 million (21.46 billion baht) refurbishment of Russia's most famous ballet theatre, over six long years, was not simply an external achievement of design, decor, acoustic superiority. It's magnificent location on Teatranlnaya Square, with the grand buildings of the Kremlin next door, gave it a great sense of history, of course. And if its stones could talk, they would have many historical stories of the old Soviet Union, and of Tsars, Stalin, Lenin, against an undulating repertoire of Russia's oldest and richest music and dance.

But wanting to get a taste of the "new" Bolshoi Theatre I opted to see one of their latest operas, which created big waves when it opened their 236th season _ The Golden Cockerel. It's of course a well-known drama, written by popular "fairy tale" composer Rimsky Korsakov, based on a famous poem by none other than Alexander Pushkin.

I was breathless with excitement when I entered the world's best-known ballet theatre. The curtains were exotic satin, the columns rich marble, the circular hall grand and inviting. After seeing so many Bolshoi shows in India and Thailand, I was ecstatic to finally see it in its own home.

The opera singers' voices were crystal-clear in my fourth-tier seat. I hired opera binoculars, but never had to use them; the visuals were as magnificent as the sounds.

By the time the rich red curtains lifted high and the Bolshoi Orchestra played from the grand pit below, I was giddy with excitement.

But this Golden Cockerel was not like any fairy tale I had ever seen before.

It had soldiers on stage, snipers with guns, military parades, a Tsar in military costume, as well as an erotic Queen, women in skimpy underclothes, a phallic-shaped missile _ topped by an Astrologer and a Golden Cockerel, whose "predictions" were always ambiguous.

There was no doubt that this was a trenchant political and moral satire. That was when I learned that the opera was written by the anti-establishment composer soon after the 1905 Revolution as a "hit" against the tsarist regime. It was banned, and performed, with many censor's cuts, only after his death.

The new version is a strong "hit" with contemporary politicians, and judging by the full-house shows, was a huge "hit" with contemporary audiences.

The excellent English subtitles ensured that the new Bolshoi Theatre reached out to maximum international audiences. In fact, I met many tourists from Europe, Japan, Korea. We all agreed that if this was a sizzling introduction to the newly reconstructed and resurrected Bolshoi Theatre, it was cultural glasnost of the most heady kind.

Director Kirill Serebrennikov, known for his controversial productions, described the production succinctly: "It is all about power, and people in power".

Moscow Times described it simply as "One of the most penetrating portrayals of power in Russia you'll ever see on stage! It might be a good idea for some of Russia 's ruling class to pop into the Bolshoi, from over the road in the Kremlin".

Who knows, may be many of those in power at the Kremlin, did pop into the Bolshoi theatre and take a look at this New Age opera, before they prepared for the elections?

Who knows, maybe they even have a "Golden Cockerel" to herald the future for them?

Lekha Shankar is a Bangkok-based Indian columnist and film programmer who writes on the arts and culture.

Lekha Shankar


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