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Bolsheviks, Music and Opera at Russia's
White Nights Festival

By Andrew Jack

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA, 10 July 2000 - Bored of the summer festivals in Avignon, Salzburg or Edinburgh? For more intrepid culture vultures, Saint Petersburg offers an adventurous alternative. Russia’s self-proclaimed “Venice of the North” hosts its own exotic White Nights Festival throughout June, with other cultural events that roll on into July and beyond.

The brainchild of Valery Gergiev, artisitic director of the Kirov, based in the Mariinsky Theatre, the White Nights itself provides an intensive dose of music and opera against the crumbling backdrop of Russia’s intellectual capital, at a fraction of the cost of rival events further to the west.

Alongside War and Peace, one of this year’s highlights is Prokofiev’s opera Semyon Kotko, a four-hour epic with a difficult history that combines some challenging music with a heavy dose of Soviet-era ideology.


Written at the height of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, at the time of the secretive pre-war pact with Hitler, and based in the turmoil of Ukraine towards the end of the first world war, Semyon Kotko is hardly the easiest or jolliest of operas. Superficially, it portrays the heroic struggle of the Red Army against imperialism and the legacy of feudalism.

In fact, rhetoric aside, it was controversial from the start, gaining the disapproval of the regime of the time, leading to the arrest of the conductor Meyerhold during final rehearsals. Seen today, there are some scenes in particular which make it tempting to write off the opera as excessively dated and ideological.

Yet at a time when Russia needs to examine its own history, it would be foolish to consign the rarely-performed opera to perpetual obscurity. While the Politburo might largely have approved of the opera once the paranoia of the Stalin-era was over, it offers sufficient subtlety for very different interpretations today.

While glossing over the initial expropriation of aristocratic land to linger instead over the unjust reappropriation from the Bolshevik hero Kotko, there are sufficient laments from the kulak father of his betrothed, Tkachenko, to hint that the Communist future had its drawbacks.

Clearly there is no mention of the brutal period of Bolshevik oppression in the country during the 1920s and 1930s that followed, leaving huge numbers of Ukrainians to starve to death in Europe’s soil-rich theoretical bread basket thanks to Stalin’s cynically induced artificial famine. Not to mention the ruthless purges that followed, of dissidents and simple peasants alike.

But to be fair, there is some justice in the opera’s ruthless portrayal of the Cossack and German occupiers, a reminder that Ukraine’s complex and bloody history of oppression did not simply begin or end at the hands of left-wing Russians.

The final scene is so over-done in its ideology that today it stands as a form of self-parody of totalitarianism. Uniformly-clad peasants gaze optimistically upwards and forwards, clutching Red Books, like a Socialist Realist picture with a touch of Mao. The unconvincingly simple conversion of Tkachenko to the Socialist cause, and especially his apparent easy acceptance by his new-found comrades, adds extra irony.

Meanwhile, the costumes of the Bolshevik hangers-on with peaked hoods and gowns – albeit in red not white – give a nod to the ridiculous robes of the Ku Klux Klan, provide a reminder that mindless violence and the cult of the mob was not and is not the monopoly of the Communists.

This production of Kotko is also accompanied by a wonderful stage set, slanted to make it easier for audience to see, if rather precarious for the performers. The bent railtracks, an upturned steam locomotive, and a hole in the middle variously used as a pond for a romantic late-night dip and a bomb crater, with the night sky overhead, provide a dramatic backdrop and a reminder of the chaos and disruption of the period.

Gergiev’s own defence of his choice of the piece is that for Prokofiev, the music was in any case always more important than the politics, and it is clearly difficult from outside the Soviet system to make judgements of the difficult choices that working from within required.

While Saint Petersburg’s latitude does not quite offer 24-hour daylight for mid-summer, you can still take advantage of afternoon-like lighting at 11p.m. as you leave the Mariinsky.

But that raises one problem with the White Knights Festival. It is such a creature of Gergiev’s personal energy that there is little else outside the opera and some classical music concerts. While the tempo of Mariinsky performances steps up during the festival, it would be good to think that others could organise accompanying events.

Yet there is little else – theatre, music, spontaneous “on” let alone “off” accompaniments – which might enrich the festival much further. There is no real organised or semi-organised activity which takes advantage of the city’s facades and open spaces, or extends its cultural offerings into the day of night.

There is also another drawback, even further beyond Gergiev’s control. Steadily crumbling away despite – and because of – its architectural and historical richness, Saint Petersburg is lamentably prepared for international tourism.

Apart from the usual Russian difficulties of obtaining visas, on arrival, restaurants and cafés remain generally disappointing. And aside from three outrageously expensive hotels (a minimum of $300 a night if you are lucky), and a few miserable Soviet-era concrete lodgings in the outskirts of the city, it is hard work to find accommodation.

Given the cost of the tickets, which even with dual pricing for foreign visitors come in at a fraction of the equivalents at Covent Garden, the Mariinsky is worth the effort. But the city authorities – and a few other energetic artists -could do far more with relatively little effort to turn the White Nights into a real international cultural festival.



Mariinsky Theatre Website



Andrew Jack writes on culture and politics from Moscow for Culturekiosque.com.

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