Out of Russia: Real-life drama takes centre stage at Bolshoi

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The famous bronze horses that prance over the portal of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre have ridden out from behind scaffolding splendidly restored. Unfortunately, the building on which they sit is literally sinking into the ground. The management has launched an appeal to raise dollars 80m ( pounds 53m) to save the opera house but so far the fund stands at virtually zero. Poor organisation which dogs most enterprises in Russia is no stranger to the theatre.

Last month the great Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe made her contribution by singing a solo concert, the proceeds of which were supposed to go to the fund. Caballe is nearing the end of her career and for Moscow opera-lovers this was probably the last chance to hear a live performance by one of the finest exponents of bel canto singing, albeit past her best. The demand for tickets was enormous.

But although some seats were sold through official agencies for up to dollars 150 each, most tickets seemed to find their way into the hands of the 'scalpers' or black marketeers. For ordinary performances, these leather-jacketed youths buy up tickets still sold for ridiculously low rouble prices at the box office and re-sell them to foreign tourists on the street for large amounts of hard currency.

This practice, which excludes poor Russian music lovers from the opera, and often stings foreigners if they do not look carefully at the date on the tickets they are buying, is an accepted part of Moscow life. But how come the scalpers were dealing in tickets for a charity event? 'Of course we shall give the money to the fund,' leered one. 'You could say it's corrupt,' said another more honestly.

The Bolshoi's incompetence did not end here. When the time came for ticket-holders to enter the theatre for Caballe's concert, grim-faced ushers who would have been better employed as prison guards closed all but two narrow doors so that hundreds of people were squashed like sardines as they tried to push their way into the foyer. By this time the concert had already started and scores of spectators, late through no fault of their own, were unable to take their seats until the interval.

But all the frustration - 'Let the Bolshoi fall down for all I care,' said a man in the melee - lifted at the sound of Caballe's voice and the sight of the theatre, with its tiers of gilded boxes and sparkling chandeliers.

The opera house, pink stucco on the outside, was built in the 18th century over the underground Neglinnaya River, which explains why the building is subsiding and damp is rising up its walls and columns. A former Soviet prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, gave the go-ahead for an ambitious dollars 500m project to restore not only the Bolshoi but all the buildings on Theatre Square. But nothing was done as it became clear that the Communist state was almost bankrupt.

For a while, privatisation seemed an option, but President Boris Yeltsin has ruled that an institution as important as the Bolshoi must remain a jewel in the crown of the Russian state. According to Bella Rudenko, a theatre spokeswoman, the Bolshoi is now looking at a more modest project, under which the main building would be restored, the stage rebuilt and the technical equipment renewed for dollars 80m. In addition, dollars 3m will have to be spent on the facade, dollars 1m on the chandeliers and dollars 3m on the theatre's museum. The Bolshoi also has a special clinic which monitors the state of singers' vocal chords but it is short of medicines.

Naturally the prospect of an impending restoration, during which the Bolshoi will have to close for two years or more, is hardly conducive to artistic innovation. The performers of the Bolshoi have long been accused of sitting on their laurels but now perhaps one can understand why the theatre just keeps trotting out old productions of La Traviata, Faust and Boris Godunov until the builders move in.

The corps de ballet is taking refuge in London this winter and some lucky singers are involved in a joint project with Genoa to stage a new production of Borodin's Prince Igor. But many singers are not working much at the moment. Lyudmila Ovchinnikova, a coloratura soprano, said: 'We want to keep the singers together because the Bolshoi company is unique but the risk is that the best will drift off to different foreign jobs and the rest will be unemployed.'

Not everyone feels sympathy for the artists of the Bolshoi. Yevgeny Kolobov, the director of a new alternative opera group, says the public has suffered from a system whereby a small group of 'stars' have hogged centre stage 'until they were dragged off to the cemetery'. He gives opportunities to young singers and sacks them if they are no good. His opera has no permanent home but already he is drawing crowds. His latest venture is a production of Donizetti's Maria Stuart, which has never before been staged in Russia.