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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence