By Glenn Walters
For nearly three weeks starting March 29, the very best of what was new in the Russian theater last season goes on display in Moscow, as troupes of actors, singers, dancers and puppeteers from near and far compete for Golden Masks, the country’s most prestigious theatrical award.
Denis Savin, “Bolt”
As in the past, roughly half the awards to be handed out at the conclusion of this year’s 12th annual Golden Mask Festival will go to musical theater, which includes opera, operetta and musicals, ballet and contemporary dance, all as premiered in the season of 2004-05. Each category is allocated an award for best production, while further Golden Masks honor the individual efforts of singers, dancers, conductors, directors, choreographers and scenic designers.
Like other competitions of this kind, the Golden Mask has its share of quirks and peculiarities. One of them lies in restricting the choice nominees for individual prizes to those who have taken part in the nominated productions. In the case of directors, choreographers and scenic designers that seems perfectly reasonable. But placing such a limitation on the choice, for example, of best female singer in opera may strike some as rather unfair. Yet, for the already over-burdened selection committee, taking into account every outstanding singing, dancing and conducting performance in Russia over a 12-month period would no doubt stretch its resources beyond all reasonable limits. To be absolutely candid about things, however, the festival perhaps ought to consider adding the phrase ‘in a nominated production’ to designations such as ‘best female singer in opera,’ ‘ best conductor’ and the like.
Golden Mask regulations specify that nominees must show their wares on a Moscow stage during the course of the festival. But exceptions are sometimes made to accommodate the schedules of particular theaters. Such has been the case this year with Giaochino Rossini’s rarely heard comic opera ‘The Journey to Rheims,’ from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, and ‘Anna Karenina,’ by the St. Petersburg-based Boris Eifman Ballet Theater, both of which made their Moscow Golden Mask appearances in February. Moreover, two ballet nominees from the Mariinsky, ‘Approximate Sonata’ and ‘Reverence,’ will not appear in Moscow at all, but be viewed by the festival’s musical theater jury on their home stage.
This year’s list of nominees contains nine operas, a number that breaks all previous records. The other musical theater categories are more modestly represented, with three nominees for best operetta or musical, six for best ballet, and four for best contemporary dance production.
Many local opera goers are already familiar with the opera nominees from Moscow, the Bolshoi Theater productions of Leonid Desyatnikov’s ‘The Children of Rosenthal’ and Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ and Helikon Opera’s abridged version of Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘The Story of a Real Man,’ re-titled ‘Fallen from the Sky.’
‘The Children of Rosenthal’ caused quite a stir at its world premiere last March, when patriotic youth organizations and members of the State Duma mindlessly denounced Vladimir Sorokin’s libretto for what turned out to be its non-existent pornography. Both Sorokin’s words and Desyanikov’s music proved, in fact, artistic achievements of a very high order and the Bolshoi company provided a stunning performance. But in view of the overwrought and insensitive staging perpetrated by much-hyped Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius, ‘The Children of Rosenthal’ seems an unlikely candidate for Golden Mask top honors.
“The Night of the Open Doors”
Quite the opposite occurred in the case of ‘Madame Butterfly,’ where the brilliant minimalist staging by American director Robert Wilson was undercut by a rather routine musical performance. ‘Fallen from the Sky,’ which premiered last May as part of the World War II victory celebrations, is one of Helikon artistic director Dmitri Bertman’s finest accomplishments. And though the music is hardly on a par with Prokofiev’s best, Helikon’s splendid job of bringing the opera to life could well bring the production a Golden Mask.
Other operas in contention and playing during the festival weeks are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ from Ufa, Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ and Igor Stravinsky’s seldom performed ‘The Nightingale,’ both from Perm, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata,’ in a small-scale version by the St. Petersburg Opera, and, as perhaps the most likely candidate of all to take the operatic Golden Mask, the Mariinsky’s production of Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’.
Nominations for best conductor are a mere two: Bolshoi musical director Alexander Vedernikov (‘The Children of Rosenthal’) and two-time Golden Mask winner Vladimir Ponkin (‘Fallen from the Sky’). Missing from the list is the Mariinsky’s renowned artistic director, Valery Gergiev (‘Tristan and Isolde’), a five-time Golden Mask winner in the past. Despite those successes, Gergiev has maintained a somewhat strained relationship with the festival in recent years. And it remains open to question whether his real reason for declining a nomination this year was, as officially reported, a desire to give others a clearer shot at the prize.
Directors who staged eight of the nine nominated operas are in competition for the directing award, among them the radical-minded Dmitri Chernyakov, who has every chance of walking off with his fourth operatic Golden Mask in the course of five years. The missing body among directors is Robert Wilson, and the excuse given for his absence is the fact that ‘Madame Butterfly’ came as a re-staging of something he had already done a number of times elsewhere. The same applies to the omission among choreographer nominees of John Neumeier, whose ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Bolshoi numbers among the ballet nominations. Perhaps the Golden Mask’s argument might sound truly convincing had Wilson and Neumeier merely carted their productions to Russia in wholesale fashion. Each, however, made numerous changes and adjustments with a view toward exploiting the particular strengths -- and minimizing the weaknesses -- of the Bolshoi’s singers and dancers.
Standing out among the nominated singers is soprano Yelena Voznesenskaya, whose touching portrayal of the prostitute Tanya ranked among the highlights of ‘The Children of Rosenthal.’ Two years ago, Voznesenskaya became the first and as yet only member of the Bolshoi company to receive a Golden Mask as best female singer in opera. Yet the Bolshoi, somewhat strangely, makes scant use of her remarkable vocal and acting talents.
In addition to ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Approximate Sonata,’ ‘Reverence’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ nominations for best ballet have gone to the Bolshoi’s staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s ‘Bolt,’ a tale of industrial sabotage in early Stalinist times given a lively and wonderfully satirical choreographic rendering by Bolshoi ballet artistic director Alexei Ratmansky, and to a production of Prokofiev’s monumental ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from the Krasnoyarsk Theater of Opera and Ballet. Ratmansky, a Golden Mask winner two years ago with Shostakovich’s ‘The Bright Stream,’ is also a nominee this year for best choreographer. Among the competitors for the dancing awards are the Bolshoi’s lovely prima ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova, and two of its most gifted young male dancers, Yan Godovsky and Denis Savin.
Operetta and musicals have never had much impact at Golden Mask festivals, perhaps because the former is such a dowdy, old-fashioned art form and the latter has yet to emerge in Russia from its early stages of development. But ‘My Fair Lady’ from the Moscow Operetta Theater, ‘Figaro here!’ from Novosibirsk, and ‘The Night of the Open Doors’ from Yekaterinburg, hold promise of breathing life into their corner of the festival program.
Announcement of this year’s Golden Mask winners takes place at an awards ceremony to be held April 17 at the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theater.
A full program of events and other information about this year’s Golden Mask Festival can be found at: www.goldenmask.ru