Moscow: Come October and the symbol par excellence of Russia — the Bolshoi Theatre — will step into its 160th year and to mark this momentous passage has been staging Italian composer Gaetano Donizettis comic opera, “Don Pasquale”.
It appears to be an Italian season here as is evident from the long queues waiting to see the first exhibition in Russia of the great Italian Renaissance painter Rafaello Sanzio — better known as Raphael.
The Bolshoi has invited director Timofei Kulyabin to stage “Don Pasquale” for his first production with them. Kulyabin’s radical stage version of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser” in Novosibirsk (Siberia) last year caused a major controversy following a complaint against the production by the local head of the Russian Orthodox Church. A court later dismissed the allegations.
Bolshoi means “large” or “grand” in Russian and because opera and ballet are considered nobler than drama, theatres came to be called “Maly” or “smaller” and “lesser”.
The Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Opera are amongst the oldest and most renowned companies in the world. It is also the world’s biggest ballet company, with a troupe of more than 200 dancers.
This correspondent was fortunate in not needing the aid of Russian subtitles scrolling on electronic screens to follow “Don Pasquale”, which premiered in Paris in 1843. Greatly popular when it was written, Kulyabin’s production updates it to modern times in the 19th century setting of the Bolshoi, employing also the device of a documentary projected on to a screen on stage, that introduces the ridiculous Pasquale, showing him in the company, among others, of disgraced Italian ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
The opera centres on the ex-university professor and bachelor Don Pasquale and the consequences of his decision to marry as he approaches his 70th birthday. It is a comedy of errors surrounding Pasquale’s intention to marry but in the end sees him remaining a bachelor.
“We decided to keep the location but change the time to move into modern times. We tried to keep the original intrigue and general merriment,” Kulyabin was cited telling reporters. His description is apt
for the music too, which remains entertaining throughout.
The Bolshoi opera company specialises in the classics of Russian opera, but in recent decades, works by Western composers are also being performed, especially those of Italian composers such as
Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.
Meanwhile, the Pushkin Museum here is hosting a rare exhibition of 11 works by Rafael, the architect of the High Renaissance, some of which have never previously left Italy. Rafael had a great influence on Russian culture, particularly that of Russian novelists such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Pushkin.
“The hope is to continue to foster Russia’s love affair with Italian art and with Raphael,” wrote a commentator in the Moscow Times.
The love affair began five centuries ago, when, having built up a prestigious and powerful state, Tsar Ivan III sent his emissaries to Italy to hire the best architects of the Renaissance era to design buildings for the Kremlin palace in the centre of Moscow.
The Kremlin complex reflects the characteristics of different facets of the Italian renaissance: Venetian, Bolognese and Milanese. The Dormition Cathedral was built by Bolognese architect Aristotel
Most of the Kremlin walls and towers were built by Pietro Antonio Solari and Marco Ruffo from Milan. The duo also constructed the Palace of Facets.
“After Italian architects worked in the Kremlin, Russian architecture became more joyful, more bright, more picturesque,” Moscow Architectural Institute Rector Dmitry Shvidkovsky said.
It is on record that more than 60 Italian architects were invited to Moscow in the 15th and 16th centuries.
As director Kulyabin’s controversial staging of Wagner’s opera highlighted the divide in the country between traditionalists who see the nation as a bulwark of conservative values and the liberal urban
intelligentsia that seeks a Russia firmly integrated into the Western world, the Italian autumn here provokes a revisiting of the debate around Russian identity — is Russia an Asian or a European country?
Being a vast country, straddling different time zones and containing populations of Central Asian origin, Russian culture itself has a deep-rooted oriental component. In fact, a clue to this is provided by the nature of Russian orientalism itself as it developed through contact with the colonies. Russia’s eastern colonies lay contiguous, not separated by sea, as were the colonies of France and Britiain.
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