Recordings > Video

Bolshoi: A Renaissance

spacer A film by Denis Sneguirev. Bel Air Classiques BAC075, 54 mins., subtitled

BolshoiDVD

Moscow's Bolshoi Theater has been the de facto central exhibit of Russian performance culture — including not only ballet and opera but political spectacle and ideological struggle — from at least the time the nascent Soviet state moved Russia's capital back from Petrograd in 1918. Denis Sneguirev's fine film concentrates on the deteriorating building's near-miraculous six-year renovation project, completed in 2011. The documentary is in French, with well-rendered English subtitles; the various "talking head" commentators include administrators, artists, backstage personnel, critics and acousticians.

The theater's rapid construction by Russian–Italian architect Albert Cavos in 1856 passed on inadequacies to future generations. Serious problems arose within three decades; the renovators discovered much more severe damage than had been anticipated, with the building falling into seven distinct pieces. Sneguirev's deployment of computer graphics to display the complex structural problems at stake (and the solutions obtained) is deft and illuminating. Six underground stories now underlay the main building, with a new chamber stage, more rehearsal space and twenty-first-century technical facilities.

The film also considers the theater's broader history. Lenin gave his last speech there. Stalin proclaimed the U.S.S.R. as such from its stage. We see delegates giving the prescribed "stormy applause" at Communist Party functions. Stalin's harem of divas goes unmentioned, but his condemnation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk spurred the Bolshoi to present its stylistic model, Wozzeck, during the renovation in 2009; it was the first Russian production of Berg's opera since 1927. A current security chief — seeming very much a creature of the age of Putin — is more excited that the door handles being restored were touched by the hand of Nicholas II.

Much of the focus is on ballet (with familiar but stunning clips of Ulanova, Vasiliev and others), but footage of Lemeshev and then Atlantov as Lenski precedes a section discussing Dmitri Tcherniakov's innovative Eugene Onegin, in which we see and hear Mariusz Kwiecien and Tatiana Monogarova rehearsing. Tcherniakov's Wozzeck also provides footage, with iffy vocalism but impressive-sounding orchestral torrents unleashed by conductor Teodor Currentzis (whose Byronic emoting would shame Michael Bolton). 

As with most documentaries about overcoming improbable odds, the tone is as positivistic as any Soviet textbook: we hear nothing of past defections, current graft or the scandal caused by Galina Vishnevskaya's reaction to the nouvelle vague Onegin. The narrative ends hours before the reopening; nevertheless, the film provides an informative short take on a remarkable accomplishment. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10