Boris Pokrovsky: Opera director whose career at the Bolshoi crossed five decades

Boris Pokrovsky dominated Soviet opera for over 50 years and his productions – lavish, traditional, even sometimes staid – defined the Bolshoi style. But his chamber opera company often moved in a very different direction.

Pokrovsky was born in a cultured household and as a child visited the theatre and listened to Feodor Chaliapin's recordings. His parents let him bash their old piano with his fists for a while, before sending him to the Gnessin Music School in Moscow. Rewards for progress came in the form of being allowed to join them at the Bolshoi, where they had a season ticket.

After three years working in a chemical plant, Pokrovsky enrolled at the State Institute of Theatrical Art (GITIS). Graduation led to the Gorky Opera and Ballet Theatre, where he launched immediately into Carmen.

In 1943 he joined the Bolshoi, where he would spend much of his working life. An important early assignment was Prokofiev's War and Peace. Going beyond his role as producer, he urged the composer to write additional scenes, including Natasha's first meeting with Andrei at a New Year's Ball, and the war council at Fili. The epic was to be presented over two nights and part one was premiered in 1947. It was a great success, pleasing the composer enormously; but after the dress rehearsal, the following year's part two was cancelled.

It was an early sign of a crackdown on the arts, but the storm would break over another Pokrovsky production, Muradeli's opera The Great Friendship, which catastrophically misinterpreted the Party line on Georgia's role in the Civil War. A series of "artistic conferences" followed: Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others were accused of writing Formalist, "anti-people" music, which was banned.

Pokrovsky was proud to be counted in such company but he was also fortunate. Though not a Party member, Stalin joked that his presence at the Bolshoi would strengthen the bond between members and non-members.

The perturbations of 1948 were immense, but for some, short-lived. War and Peace had won Pokrovsky a Stalin Prize in 1947 and the award was repeated the next three years. In 1952, he became artistic director of the Bolshoi, and in 1954 joined the staff of GITIS, eventually heading the musical theatre department. By 1959, the Bolshoi was allowed to present some of its signature works in New York.

In the early 1950s Pokrovsky promoted the young Galina Vishnevskaya to sing Leonore, and her "beloved teacher" went on to direct all of her Bolshoi roles. Drawing on Stanislav-sky, he never demonstrated what he wanted – only explained and suggested, allowing the performer to find his or her own way. Vishnevskaya praised his ability to create "an in-depth characterisation. He knew how to bring out the acting potential in each artist, qualities the artist might not even know he had." He approached her for Tosca in 1971, but she said she had no interest in the lead role. When he retorted that, "You were put on earth to sing Tosca", she acceded and it became one of her favourite roles.

In 1963, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was revived as the bowdlerised Katerina Izmailova. Pokrovsky, the conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the composer discussed making a third version, questioning the socialist-realist spin that the authorities had put on the work, but it never happened.

By now, Pokrovsky and the chief conductor Alexander Melik-Pashayev were becoming frustrated by the Bolshoi's army of "chiefs", each with their petty fiefdoms. They proposed a clear-out to allow them to run things as they wished. But in 1964 it was announced that the two had been replaced at their own request. Melik-Pashayev had a heart attack and died, and Pokrovsky was demoted for six years.

In 1972, Pokrovsky launched the Moscow Chamber Opera with Shchedrin's Not Love Alone, but his most famous production came two years later with Shostakovich's The Nose, which the Bolshoi had rejected. Pokrovsky had worked on it with GITIS students, but this would mark its first public performance in the Soviet Union since 1929, when it had been described as "an anarchist's hand-grenade". The production and a recording, both conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, effectively rehabilitated the piece. Back at the Bolshoi, Pokrovsky mounted Katerina again in 1980, but the reviews were poor and two years later he left after another dispute. He later refused to recognise it as the theatre he had known.

In the wake of the 1948 condemnation, Shostakovich had vented his spleen with Rayok, a satire so vicious he had to keep it secret. Ironically, the scatological preface, about the discovery of a lost manuscript, reflected its own history and it was only revealed in the early 1990s. Pokrovsky staged it as a continuation of Shostakovich's unfinished Gogol opera, The Gamblers, having the KGB invade the auditorium, stop the performance and begin the galumphing proceedings against the composer. MCO's 60-plus productions include Handel and Mozart, forgotten Soviet works (including Shebalin's The Taming of the Shrew) and contemporary pieces like Schnittke's Life with an Idiot. Among the newest is Vladimir Rebikov's A Nest of Gentlefolk, after Turgenev.

Pokrovsky produced all the core Russian and many Western operas, sometimes more than once, as well as rarities such as Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko, Shchedrin's Dead Souls and Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini. But not all of this was achieved easily: Pokrovsky fell out with the bass Yevgeny Nesterenko, who condemned Prokofiev's The Gambler as Formalist. Porgy and Bess – which surely should have appealed to the Soviets – was realised only in a student production.

But the most popular productions are still in the repertoire: his 1944 Eugene Onegin was revived in 2000 and, like numerous Bolshoi productions, filmed and released on DVD.

For Pokrovsky, innovation was more important in the choice of repertoire than in the production, which should be determined by the music and the text. Convinced of the necessity of art, rehearsals were his greatest joy and he also wrote several books about opera. He married twice: first to Anna Nekrasova, director of the Moscow Children's Theatre, and then to the soprano Irina Maslennikov.

John Riley

Boris Alexandrovich Pokrovsky, opera producer: born Moscow 23 January 1912; married firstly Anna Nekrasova (two children), secondly Irina Maslennikova (one son, one daughter); died Moscow 5 June 2009.

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