Out of Russia: Diva finds a looking-glass world

MOSCOW - It was just like old times. Shouts of brava and bouquets of flowers rewarded Galina Vishnevskaya for her performance in Moscow last week. Journalists queued to interview her in the dressing room afterwards. But the diva had not been singing. She retired from opera 12 years ago. Instead she had been playing a ribald comic role in the theatre where, at the age of 66, she is trying to make a second career as an actress.

All Moscow is talking about this. 'It's a big mistake,' said an elderly gentleman who lives in my block of flats. 'A queen of the opera like she was ought not to lower herself. Generally, I think older women do not look good on the stage.' His view is typical of those who have not been to see Vishnevskaya at the Chekhov Theatre. Those who have seen her found her entertaining and defended her right to step off her pedestal and have a little fun.

The former Bolshoi star is still attractive. She has not turned into a tub of lard like some other Russian opera singers one could mention. In Behind the Mirror by Yelena Gremina, she plays Catherine the Great and the part is perfect for her.

Vishnevskaya is a controversial figure here. Her husband, the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, is greatly respected for having defended Solzhenitsyn in Soviet times, followed him into exile in the West and then come back to support Russia's fledgeling democracy. Vishnevskaya is less popular because she is perceived to be haughty. Perhaps she is. When she returned to Russia, she allowed the Bolshoi to lay on a tribute to her with sycophantic speeches that would have made Brezhnev blush. But in the play she shows she has a splendid sense of humour. Strutting about as the imperious Catherine, Vishnevskaya is parodying herself.

The ageing empress, whose passion for philosophy and social reform is matched only by her voracious appetite in bed, keeps a young sex slave in a little boudoir-cum-prison behind the mirror of one of the palace's public reception rooms. The poor young soldier Sashenka, played by Sergei Shnyrev, a recent theatre school graduate, almost goes out of his mind waiting for 'little mother', as Catherine likes to be called, to drop by and have her way with him. 'You are not bored, are you?' asks the empress, and he is forced to pretend he is happy reading the geography books she gives him to keep him occupied between bouts.

Sashenka's only companion is the lady-in-waiting, Countess Bruce, who tells him: 'Don't argue with me. I'm the one who decides how long you spend here.' Other victims have been kept behind the mirror for as many as 12 years.

Sashenka is lucky. After only four years, Countess Bruce brings him outdoor clothes to replace the humiliating nightshirt he has worn day and night and slips him a key. He escapes. But Catherine is not a simple monster. She is a fond-hearted woman who craves love and Sashenka feels pity, even perhaps nostalgia, for her. He makes the fatal mistake of returning. Overjoyed, Catherine promises to marry him.

The play ends with Catherine and Sashenka in bed again. Countess Bruce brings him a drink which he downs and dies. It was poison. Sashenka had come too close to the throne and so he had to go. I was not sure whether the empress had ordered the murder. 'No, the countess killed him,' said Vishnevskaya after the show. 'Catherine was distraught. She cried for five months.'

Peeling off her wig and counting out money to buy vodka for the theatre staff, Vishnevskaya talked about adapting from opera to acting. Her 50 years on the stage meant that she was not a novice, she said, but whereas the music supported her before, now she felt more exposed in front of the public.

Vishnevskaya was full of praise for her young partner. 'Sergei is a very sincere boy,' she said. 'I could see his blushes even under his make- up. I had to coax him to kiss me on the neck.'