The diva, the director and a fight at the Russian opera

Russia's world-famous Bolshoi Theatre is at war. It is a battle that has pitted the traditionalists against the modernists and left the illustrious theatre scrabbling to defend its hard-won artistic reputation.

And it is a conflict that has triggered dark mutterings about a plot to blacken its famous name engineered, it is claimed, by "the other place" - the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Ballet in St Petersburg.

The first shot in what has become a damagingly public debate about the Bolshoi's future was fired by Galina Vishnevskaya, its most famous diva and wife of the renowned conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Ms Vishnevskaya was due to celebrate her 80th birthday at the Bolshoi on 25 October, more than 50 years after she first trod its boards as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. But what was supposed to be a celebration among Russia's cultural elite turned dramatically sour.

Ms Vishnevskaya alleged that the Bolshoi's growing appetite for modernist "experimental" interpretations of some of Russia's most hallowed masterpieces had got out of hand, and said she would take her party elsewhere. She reserved particular scorn for a new version of Eugene Onegin, the first modern interpretation of the classical opera in more than 60 years.

Ms Vishnevskaya claimed that the opera had been ruined by the modernist director Dmitry Chernyakov, who once set Tristan and Isolde on a submarine. The soprano penned a public letter to the Bolshoi's shell-shocked management, telling them the new production had driven her to "despair and humiliation" and a "national treasure" had been maligned.

"It's appalling," she said in one interview. "How can a masterpiece of opera be treated in this way? I suddenly understood that I don't have any relation to this theatre any more." She added: "I will not rid myself of the shame I felt for being present at such a public desecration of one of our national treasures until the end of my days." So great was her fury that she vowed never to set foot in the Bolshoi again.

The opera, based on a 19th-century novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, Russia's equivalent to Shakespeare, is regarded as sacred by Russia's cultural guardians. It tells the story of a nobleman, Onegin, who kills his friend, Lensky, in a duel sparked by jealous love. It is a tragic tale of unfulfilled love, missed opportunities, and crossed wires.

To Ms Vishnevskaya's horror, the new version portrayed some central characters as alcoholics or mentally unstable, and had Lensky killed by accident rather than in a duel.

The Bolshoi could not shrug off her criticism easily; she is "a people's artist of the USSR", one half of the global cultural community's most famous couple, and a friend of the reclusive writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the late classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich. What she called "the deformation" of Eugene Onegin was particularly painful for her at a time when she was preparing to celebrate her life's work.

Ms Vishnevskaya's first role at the Bolshoi in 1953 was as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, and her last stage appearance in Paris in 1982 also saw her play the part of the provincial beauty whom Onegin spurns only to woo unsuccessfully later.

The Bolshoi's general director, Alexander Iksanov, has argued that the famous theatre needs to innovate to stay fresh. "The need to have new interpretations of classical works is an imperative of our time. It is a pity that talented people do not understand that," he said.

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album