Why Verdi has gone west

The celebrated Soviet film director Andrei Konchalovsky has begun directing opera for the Kirov. He speaks to Nick Kimberley about his staging of Un ballo in maschera, which opens in London next week
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The Independent Culture

My interview with Andrei Konchalovsky was ostensibly about his production of Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), which the Kirov Opera brings to Covent Garden next week. But Konchalovsky's conversation roams far and wide, and it's hard not to feel oneself being drawn into a distant, and perhaps lost world of Russian intellectual culture.

His ancestors included significant painters; and his parents were both poets. His father provided the text for the Soviet national anthem, and his mother, besides translating operas for the Bolshoi, seems to have been the confidante of almost every poet, musician and film-maker in Moscow, where Konchalovsky was born in 1937. As he recalls now, "Our house was always full of musicians, including some wonderful piano players: Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Sofronitzky, Prokofiev. My mother dreamed that I would be a great musician, and. I studied piano with Vladimir Ashkenazy, but in the end I found that our family was missing a certain gene, or I didn't have the talent to be a genuine interpreter."

Instead Konchalovsky took up film, studying at the state film school, where he befriended the great Soviet director Andrei Tark-ovsky. Here, too, his mother's social circle provided a stimulus: "My mother was friends with famous directors like Dovzhenko and Eisenstein. I remember Eisenstein taking me on to the set of Ivan the Terrible. I must have been about six. Later when I worked with Tarkov-sky, part of what we were doing was fighting Eisenstein, denying him. By then the great influences on us were Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman."

Besides working on scripts for Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood and Andrei Rubilev, Konchalovsky made his own films, several of which (including his thesis film, The Boy and the Pigeon,) won prizes outside Russia. As he recalls now, "Making movies during the Soviet era was much easier than making movies today in, say, Britain. Here you have to get the money. In Soviet Russia, the money didn't matter. What mattered was the ideology. You knew exactly what you couldn't say, there were certain doors you couldn't open, but beyond that, you were free. During my time as a film-maker in Russia, there were no more than 10 films that were banned. One was Tarkovsky's Andrei Rubilev; another was my own Asya's Happiness. But although both us had films banned, we immediately got more work. The difficulty was not in making films, it was in finding your own style. I cannot say that it was paradise, but nor can I pretend that it was unbearable."

When Konchalovsky's Siberiade won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1979, Hollywood took notice, and the director soon found himself living and working in California. His Hollywood career has not so far brought either the success or the esteem that he enjoyed in Russia. Meanwhile he has turned his attention to directing plays and operas: his Kirov production of Prokofiev's War and Peace was enthusiastically received at Covent Garden last year, and he hopes that the same acclaim awaits Verdi's Ballo.

Yet when he talks about opera, there is a sense of chafing at the limits imposed by the medium: "Directing opera is totally different from directing a film or even a play. With opera you have to run along tracks that the composer has laid down, you cannot determine pauses or whatever. It's more like ice-skating: what the director does has to synchronise with the music. You can have a wonderful mise-en-scène, but it has to be comfortable for the singers so that they can use their instruments. If it makes the voices sound bad, then the production can't fly."

For Konchalovsky, staging opera is not about confrontation or a desire to épater la bourgeoisie: "I think opera needs to be beautiful. I'm not fond of what I call 'threepenny opera', opera done on the cheap, or opera reconceptualised. I don't think the audience needs the shock of seeing Lohengrin in the sewers, or with gas masks and combat fatigues. Sometimes it works, most of the time it's done simply out of fear of being old-fashioned or unoriginal, but the director isn't there to satisfy his curiosity at the composer's expense."

Nevertheless when Konchalovsky's production of Verdi's Ballo opened in Parma earlier this year, audiences objected to certain aspects of the staging. Konchalovsky remains unrepentant. All productions of Ballo must decide where the action takes place. Verdi first set it in the 18th-century court of King Gustavus III of Sweden. The Neapolitan censors objected to the onstage assassination of a European king, and insisted that the opera's setting be switched to some distant location. Verdi and his librettist opted for 17th-century Boston.

Most modern productions relocate the action in Sweden; not Konchalovsky's: "I was happy to be offered the Boston version, because for me Gustavus's court in Sweden was not as rich as 18th-century America, a land of pirates, hookers and English aristocrats longing to go home. It was a wild place. If you left the city, you got shot by Indians. It was a world which Hogarth might have painted and into which I felt I could put Verdi, although that shocked audiences in Parma. Verdi's music is sometimes sensuous, at other times it's almost Folies Bergères and can-can, to the extent that I couldn't stop myself making the chorus dance. That also offended the Parma audiences."

There is something appealingly incongruous about a Russian production of an Italian opera set in America. It remains to be seen how London audiences respond to that particular incongruity.

Although Konchalovsky has no definite plans to stage more opera, he would enjoy the challenge: "It doesn't bring you a lot of money, but I like opera. There's a magic in it: it's a cross between circus and painting."

The Kirov Opera's 'Un Ballo in Maschera', Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) 9-10 July