Close but no Bolshoi

A theatre’s primary function is to embrace the audience and to make the performers comfortable. The world’s greatest concert halls (the Carnegie being one) are known for their gracefully conclave viewing areas, but not the new Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where I spent nearly four hours yesterday.

It is a small theatre, totally incomparable to its more glamorous namesake, the Bolshoi (or the Big Theatre) which is currently undergoing some repairs. The new theatre’s horseshoe shaped parterre was nicely framed by balconies and benois; seats are nice, wide and spacey (although not entirely comfortable). However, the orchestra was small, the ventilation bad, and the stage high–I was sitting in the second row–which made my neck sore after 3.5 hours of Russian opera.

The opera I saw was Boris Godunov, the quintessential Russian opera with lavish scenes, huge cast and fancy period costumes. However, each had its own a little detractions–lavish scenes were grandiose enough, but the lighting was terrible. At times, some of the characters were badly lit, while others were shadowed. From my seat, I can see stagehands manually adjusting some lights, while the lowness of the projector meant that everything a person leaves his seat at my back, I can see his (faint) shadow whirling in front of me.

I paid only 1000 roubles (30 dollars) for the 2nd row seat, and I was amazed to find a huge cast; these actors/singers must be paid in peanuts here compared to leading opera houses elsewhere. Their group scenes were great, and pleasing to look and listen to, but the solo scenes or dialogues are weak and repetitive (this can be the fault of the composer). In addition, in my opinion, an entire half-an-hour love scene between the Pretender to the Russian Throne and his annoying lover could have been done away. (His lover was probably written in only to provide much needed soprano voice in this mainly male-dominated opera).

The opera ends not as tragically as operas go, and neither did a fat lady sing. To further disappoint me, the conductor appeared to be conducting not in a tailcoat. He was an exceptional conductor though–and it was an exceptional libretto. The symphony was mainly strings (but only one harp) with a few clarinets and horns. To my surprise, drums and bells played a large role while the Greek chorus also sang from the orchestra pit. Due to my proximity, I was even able to see their faces.

To conclude, Boris Gudunov is a grand opera, and something everyone should see. Something that captivated my attention for more than three hours is definitely an interesting piece of work. The New Bolshoi Theatre, however, won’t be in my favorite theaters. I will be returning to the Russian Opera scene, forever yearning for more, but I would rather wait until the scaffolding comes off the old original Bolshoi. That or I will go to the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.

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