The naked truth about the new Bolshoi première


Shaun Walker
Friday 04 November 2011 01:00 GMT
Dress rehearsals of Ruslan and Ludmila at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow
Dress rehearsals of Ruslan and Ludmila at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

Scantily-clad sirens on roller-blades, a mythical hero who rips his clothes off during an aria and fully naked women scurrying across the stage, shrieking.

There was plenty of nudity on display at a controversial first premiere at the newly renovated Bolshoi Theatre on Wednesday night, which made the prudish cover-up of a penis on a statue adorning the theatre's entrance all the more ironic.

The action on stage drew cries of "Disgrace!" from the notoriously conservative Moscow public, while the theatre was left red-faced after bloggers pointed out that the statue of Apollo that sits above the Bolshoi's famous main entrance had been adorned with a fig leaf. The covering of his private parts is bizarre, given the assurances that the six-year renovation would leave the theatre exactly how it had been in the Tsarist era, down to the very last detail. The statue, complete with visible genitalia, even appears on the 100-rouble note.

But the scandal over the missing manhood was soon subsumed by the very visible flesh on stage. The theatre, for the first production on the historic stage, had opted for the 1842 opera by Mikhail Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmila. To poetry by Alexander Pushkin, the opera is set in ancient Kievan Rus, and is usually performed in Russia using traditional costumes.

But the Bolshoi appointed controversial director Dmitry Chernyakov to head their premiere. There was a collective sigh of relief in the auditorium when the curtain went up on the opening wedding scene to reveal a sumptuous ancient palace and lavish period costumes, but the nod to tradition was short-lived. It turned out that the wedding guests were actually rich modern Russians who had hired a palace and were dressing up in ancient clothes. In the next act, Ruslan appeared in jeans, while other characters wore leather jackets. The action became more and more surreal, with a half-naked muscular masseur appearing at one point to massage the heroine Ludmila's buttocks.

But not everyone in the audience was angered by the spectacle. At one interlude, shouts of "Disgrace!" were countered by another set of people shouting "Bravo!" until the yelling reached cacophonous levels.

There were rumours that the legendary Russian soprano, Elena Obrazstova, had pulled out at the last minute, feeling unease at the radical production. The singer who took her place reportedly broke her hand during a fall in last night's performance, and sang the last act in bandages. It is the latest in a series of bad omens for the theatre, plagued with allegations of corruption and intrigue during a renovation that ran well over budget and dragged on for years longer than initially meant to.

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