Not much happens in Wexford. By 10pm the streets of this Irish fishing port are quiet as the grave. Even the teenagers are subdued: boys and girls gather in silent segregated packs, too inhibited to reach across the dreaded sexual divide. But October is the month when strange beasts roam abroad - the singers and hangers-on who constitute the annual Wexford Opera Festival. This is the month when the sleepy burg wakes up.
At the opera house - little more than a tarted-up village hall - the turmoil is promisingly intense. The music emanating from the pit is a cross between Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but it has a strange, marionettish brightness. The narrow stage, dominated by a vast mill-wheel, is thronged with surging figures led by a bearded singer with a magnificent Russian bass voice. The chorus master is trying to damp down the surging movement - stand and deliver! - but the director is urging it on, demonstrating his intention by flying round the stage like a figure from a Chagall painting.
Meet Dmitri Bertman, enfant terrible of Russian opera, galvanising one of four productions he is directing on consecutive nights in England and Ireland this week. The Wexford show is Rusalka, based on Pushkin's elaborated folk-tale of a vengeful water-nymph, with a score by the man whom Tchaikovsky described as the supreme dilettante, Alexander Dargomizhsky. The other productions - of works by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Prokofiev - will be over the water at London's South Bank this weekend.
In Wexford, Bertman is a hired hand, working with the resident company: hence the creative tension over the chorus. But, in London, he will be at the helm of Helikon Opera, the company he created from scratch five years ago and which, in the eyes of Muscovites at least, now often outshines the Bolshoi.
In one of Wexford's hostelries I run into a section of the chorus - bemused by their director's demands, though still ready to take them on trust - plus that magnificent Russian bass. He tells me that the part he is singing - the Miller who sells his daughter into matrimony - was sung all over Russia by his grandfather before him. Bearing the same name - Maxim Mikhailov - he is proud to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. He's a Bolshoi soloist, but is now spending increasing time working with Bertman, whom he inordinately admires. "Dmitri has broken the old traditions, and brought a new vision. He opens up his characters, looks into their souls."
Wexford's artistic director Luigi Ferrari sees Bertman's approach as forming an unbroken continuity with Stanislavsky's theatre in the Twenties, before Communism snuffed that out. "He makes every word and every gesture materially live. There's no obscure symbolism, no whiff of the academy: everything on stage speaks. Meat is meat, milk is milk, stars are stars. In some hands this literalism could seem stupid, but not in his."
I saw Helikon Opera earlier this year at a festival in Beirut. The work on show was Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus, but as no Fledermaus was ever done before. This was partly thanks to some judicious Beirutification, with the drunken jailer Frosch praising the virtues of arak, and the handing- out of pistols to grandees in the stalls (who were clearly well-versed in their use). But Bertman had also imported some Russian circus clowns to subvert the ballroom scene with a DIY musical interlude complete with audience participation. In some mysterious way, far from killing the opera, it took off again with elan. There was some thrilling singing, and absolutely everyone on stage could act. The show's rough-edged quality was a positive virtue.
Relaxing over a Russian-style indoor picnic with his design team at Wexford, the 30-year-old Bertman recounts his career to date (with difficulty, since his English is strictly limited). Diagnosed as talented, he was sent to two specialist schools in tandem: for music, where he was groomed as a pianist, and for science, where chemistry was his big love. He saw his first opera when he was eight - Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Moscow's Stanlislavsky Theatre - and went back to see it scores of times. After studying opera-direction at the Moscow Academy he pulled together the brightest talents of his year for a production of Stravinsky's Mavra. "And afterwards we decided not to go our separate ways, but to stay together." Thus was Helikon born.
"At first everybody - especially the critics - wanted to kill us, because they thought that we were killing opera." Helikon stuck at it, doing a mixture of standards and recherche oddities, until the tide began to turn, and the Bolshoi audience came to their door. The state smiled on them, giving them the accolade of regular subsidy, plus a beautiful old building in central Moscow to use as their base. Mayor Lushkov invited them to present their version of Onegin as part of Moscow's 800th anniversary bash.
That version had initially alienated the critics but, as Bertman points out, since this is an opera which Russian audiences know by heart, any deviation gets it in the neck. His interpretation took its cue from the overture, whose fragile violin theme is repeatedly answered by a knell on the basses. "Our leitmotiv was not Tatyana's love, but the universal desire for life, which is systematically killed." And in this production the visual leitmotiv was jam. "It's the perfect symbol for Russian life - everybody, in every village, in every family, makes jam. And it lives on shelves like a calendar, labelled with the date of its making. In our version, when Larina and Olga were still young but felt they had no future, they made jam. At the end, when Tatyana and Onegin re-met, they drank tea, and ate jam." As Ferrari said, in any other hands...
Discussing performance-styles, Bertman returns again and again to "fullness" as a dramatic virtue: "empty" characters, going through the motions but communicating nothing, are his worst term of abuse. Matthew Bourne's male swans - as radical an experiment as any by Helikon - are in his view a perfect example of dramatic emotion expressed through movement. Stanislavsky created a company devoted to the mining of truth from movement on stage: Bertman and his singers are seeking to emulate him, with the aid of exercises passed on by Stanislavsky's pupil Mikhail Chekhov.
In 1887 Stanislavsky played Nanki-Poo in Russia's first - and so far only - production of the Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado. Next year Bertman wants to stage it again, using a director (David Sulkin) he spotted at English National Opera. Indeed, he wants to make Helikon the ENO of Russia - "not so much the present ENO, more the fantastic ENO of the Eighties". He's set up a Friends of Helikon along the lines of the Friends of the Coliseum; Graham Vick's Madam Butterfly and Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto are beacons of the excellence he dreams of. He goes for strong personalities, interesting voices.
Helikon tour the Russian hinterland as much as they tour the world. Seat prices for some of their Moscow performances are by Russian standards astronomical: $40 for the embassy crowd. Others are free, "for older people on pensions or state salaries, who couldn't otherwise come to see us". Art in Russia has always been cheap, says Bertman. "But in my view that is terrible. A seat at the Bolshoi simply should not cost less than half a bottle of vodka. That devalues art." The 25 full-time members of his company don't earn much by Western standards, but the West is seeking them out. Natalia Zagorinskaya, who will sing Lisa in Helikon's London production of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, is a case in point, being much in demand in Geneva and Japan.
With the vocally-amazing Elena Guschina as the Countess, this Queen of Spades should be riveting. And though its young director will only arrive in town on the day itself, it will bear his stamp through and through. He modestly disclaims having designed it, but the design is his conception: an assemblage of antique furniture, to provide an irreducibly realistic ground from which Tchaikovsky's passionate fantasy can take off.
Bertman is hot on that passion, and on its real-life trigger. He has visited the house in Florence where Tchaikovsky wrote the opera and noted the congruence between the words of the young heroine ("Oh listen, Night! / You alone can I trust with my heart's secret...") and the words the composer wrote in his diary. He has noted the furious crossings-out in that diary, "and the marks made by his tears".
We'll listen out for those tears, Dmitri.
`Rusalka': in repertory from tomorrow to 1 Nov, Wexford Opera Festival, Republic of Ireland (00 353 53 22144)
`Mavra' / `Maddalena' 7.45pm Sat; `Queen of Spades' 7pm Sun, both at QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)
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