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Oct 8 / Simon

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Classical Music, September 2014
High in the Urals, east of Moscow, work begins shortly on a £160m new theatre as a second venue for the 145-year-old Perm Opera House, which recently played host to a Greek-Russian descent into the Underworld. Simon Tait reports

The house was full at the start, as it always is in the Perm Opera House and Theatre, but not by the time this particular world premiere was over. Some left during the performance, noiselessly and politely, some went as the curtain calls were being taken making more of a point, while others, stunned by what they had just witnessed, applauded wildly, and in the end the depleted audience accorded the production the Russian compliment of rhythmic, co-ordinated clapping.

What they had seen was a new kind of opera, a blend of artforms that the general manager of the theatre, Marc De Mauny, describes as “as much an arts installation with sound as a musical piece”, combining music, but also visual art, dance and sonic effects, with heavy references to classical Greek tragedy. The Financial Times described it as a “Gesamtkunstwerk bringing together voice, orchestra, ritual theatre, imagery and dance”.

The music by Dmitry Kurlandsky is atonal, with a chorus of 40 ranged on either side of the stalls voicing not words but sounds that are almost primeval. The libretto is by the Greek poet Dimitris Yalamas and the set is designed by another Greek, the arte povera conceptual artist Yannis Kunellis. The director, also Greek, is Theodore Terzopoulos, who has also devised the choreography that uses 30 dancers from the Perm company.
Perm is a city 700 miles east of Moscow high in the Urals whose reputation is growing as a cultural hub. The piece revives the long dormant reputation of the opera house by its 42-year-old Athens-born artistic director Teodor Currentzis, who three years ago was brought by the Perm regional government from the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in Siberia’s capital where he had been principal conductor for six years. It is the Musica Aeterna Ensemble that he founded in Novosibirsk, that provides the chorus.

The idea of Nosferatu took five years to bring to fruition and the production, Currentzis says, is a genuine joint Greek-Russian creation. He commissioned first the librettist and then the composer, and the full team evolved, each component devoted to the concept of taking a classical story and giving it a current context. The Kunellis set is sparse, with eternal symbols – coffins, knives, books – filling the whole backstage space and changing with each of the three acts.

The narrative, Currentzis explained, is based on the Persephone story and her descent into the Underworld with Hades. But it is an allegorical use of the story and some of the methods of the Athenian theatre of Aeschylus whereby we can read “our horrible world”, he said. “This is a message for future generations,” he added. “If we were to go back to Aeschylus’s theatre for a moment I think we would be absolutely shocked – it is not the theatre we’re used to now, it would be a completely different type. The past is a link, it’s a carrier of truth for us.”

Nosferatu, sung by the baritone Tasos Dinas, represents the human propensity for corruption which, Currentzis says, is no less horrific now than it in ancient times.
“Today”, he says, “we drink champagne and we’re happy; just one week go I had news from a friend in Yemen, in a civilised city, with a photograph of a girl of eight, a bride, and this girl had died from sexual abuse on her wedding night. That is how horrible our world still is”.

The 850-seat theatre was built in the 1870s by an affluent community, and survived through Stalin’s empire. In the Second World War the Kirov Ballet, now the Mariinsky, was evacuated here for four years and created a ballet school, so that Perm Ballet is now the third most important classical dance company in Russian after the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky itself. Its state subsidy is worth 90% of its income and it is open six nights a week for opera and ballet, playing to houses of between 85% and 100%. Ticket prices start at about £1.70.

Perm, the city and the district, were depressed and the former governor, Oleg Chirkunov, saw its future in contemporary art. He brought in Currentzis who in turn recruited his friend De Mauny, an Englishman who had trained with Currentzis at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and had been running a Baroque music festival there which he had founded.

They have persuaded the funding authorities that the opera house needs a second venue,. And work began in August on building the £160m Diaghilev Theatre next to what will be renamed the Tchaikovsky Opera House, named for the composer who was born a couple of hundred kilometres from Perm. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, the 1100-seat Diaghilev – the founder of the Ballets Russes spent his childhood in Perm and his grandfather helped fund the original building – is expected to open in 2016.

Nosferatu is the first manifestation of a future of programing that will include avant garde dance and opera as well as favourites from the more traditional repertoire. The production has been made possible by the support of the Stella Arts Foundation, set up 11 years ago by the wife of a Russian millionaire businessman, Igor Kesaev.

“We are not concerned with politics in this country or social issues, but very much with philosophy, and that is what was attractive about Nosferatu,” Stella Kesaeva says – a long-time admirer of Kunellis’s work. After two performances in Perm in June, the production is to be seen in Moscow in April at the Bolshoi Theatre.

The composer, Kurlyandsky, says that he had to forget everything he had been taught to create the score, to the extent that it wasn;t entirely clear which bars were his and which came from one of the other collaborators.

“Therefore,” says Currentzis, “there are elements of this production that are still a mystery for us. I hope it can develop and unfold itself later – it’s an open channel for us to explore more and more.”