Maly Opera

On 6 March 1918, a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia was given in the premises of the former Mikhailovsky Theatre, which had been abandoned by the French company and its pre-revolutionary public. This event marks the starting point of the modern period of the theatre’s history. Transferred in its entirety from the Mariinsky stage, the performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia signalled the birth of yet another opera house in the city.

The repertoire of the new theatre was originally quite multi-faceted, including Ambrose Thomas’s Mignon, Gustav Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann, Charles-François Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s Fra Diavolo, Vladimir Rebikov’s The Christmas Tree and Anton Arensky’s Raphael. These rarely staged works were combined with such classics of world opera as Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night and The Tsar’s Bride, Jules Massenet’s Werther and Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème.

What was unexpected was the inclusion of classical operettas in the repertoire – Jacques Offenbach’s The Songbirds, Jean-Robert Planquette’s Les cloches de Corneville, Karl Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent and Johann Strauss the Younger’s Der Zigeunerbaron. Alexei Finagin, one of the first historians of the theatre, wrote in his unpublished essay Fifteen Years of the State Maly Theatre of Opera: “The very presence of operettas on the former imperial stage was, for that time, quite a revolutionary event.”

The company’s attempt to follow its own original path was typical of the theatre in general. The only problem was that this was done by artists of vastly different outlooks and aesthetic tastes. A series of conductors, all completely different in temperament and style, performed at the theatre, including Daniil Pokhitonov, Grzegorz Fitelberg and Emil Cooper. The stage directors represented virtually all the schools and movements existing at that time, including the traditional acting school (Joachim Tartakov, Gaultier Bosse), directors inspired by the Moscow Arts Theatre (Pyotr Olenin, Nikolai Arbatov, Josif Lapitsky) and adherents of the principles of theatrical stylisation (Yevreinov).

The leading soloists of the Mariinsky Theatre – now renamed the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet – also contributed to performances. At first, this was such stars as Fyodor Chaliapin, Kipras Petrauskas and Gaultier Bosse. Singing under them were Rosalia Gorskaya, Pavel Zhuravlenko, Antonina Popova-Zhuravlenko, Yevgenia Bronskaya, Yevgeny Olkhovsky, Valery Raikov and Stepan Balashov, who later formed the backbone of the independent opera company. Their ranks were then filled by younger artists, who gradually took over the main parts from the elder generation.

From 1920 onwards, the name of conductor Samuil Samosud began to increasingly figure among the credit lists of premieres. He formed a unique creative partnership with stage director Nikolai Smolich, who made his debut on the former Mikhailovsky stage in La traviata in 1922. Their work together on Verdi’s opera signalled the start of a fascinating series of collaborations and one of the most prolific unions in the history of the theatre.

Their first joint creation was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or in September 1923, a production that anticipated much that was to follow in subsequent years. The Smolich-Samosud partnership was based on their desire to experiment and to enrich opera with the achievements of the modern theatre, combined with a healthy respect for classical scores. They wanted to make the classics topical, only not necessarily through a direct, head-on approach. The political satire of Le Coq d’or, for example, was based on a fairytale.

Another urgent matter in the mid-1920s was the correspondence of opera theatre to the spirit of the times. Besides a project for the restructuring of opera companies, the authorities also planned to rewrite the librettos of classical operas in line with Communist ideology. Nikolai Vinogradov, deputy director of the academic theatres, wrote with pride: “I was the first in the republic to come up with the schemes for turning Les Huguenots into The Decembrists, Rienzi into Babeuf, and Tosca into The Paris Commune, not to mention a series of ballets.” Although the Maly Theatre mounted In the Battle for the Commune to the music of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in 1924, the experiment was not a success.

Arseny Gladkovsky and Y. V. Prussak’s opera For Red Petrograd, chronicling the recent history of the defence of the city from General Yudenich’s White Army, was premiered in 1925. Although the subject of the work was topical enough, the music failed to capture the imagination of the audiences, who had themselves recently been dressed similarly to the heroes on the stage – in greatcoats, jerkins and pea-jackets. Mark Reisen and Maria Maksakova, future stars of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, contributed to the production, as did those whose names later became firmly established with the Maly Theatre of Opera – Pyotr Zasetsky, Nikolai Kuklin and Vasily Sharonov.

Another noteworthy experiment on a revolutionary theme was The Twenty-Fifth, a three-act show based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem Fine and set to the music of Ludwig Strassenburg. This production was a collaboration between three troupes of the academic theatres – opera, drama and ballet. The dramatic episodes featured Boris Gorin-Goryainov as Alexander Kerensky, Pavel Zhuravlenko as Pavel Milyukov and Ekaterina Korchagina-Alexandrovskaya as Ekaterina Kuskova. The Twenty-Fifth represented the only occasion in which the musical theatre directly addressed the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Throughout the 1920s, the theatre concentrated its efforts on the creation of an artificial Soviet opera. But, despite many exciting experiments, these quests were not crowned with success. The main problem was the absence of the most important thing – a top-quality musical drama. The theatre itself understood this, and looked to the West, hoping that an acquaintance with the leading works of foreign twentieth-century opera would stimulate the output of Russian composers. A modernist line thus appeared in the repertoires of Soviet opera houses. The most famous productions of this period were Erwin Dressel’s Armer Columbus and Ernst Krenek’s Der Sprung über den Schatten and Jonny spielt auf.

Several foreign musicians wrote rave reviews of the Soviet shows. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet claimed: “Undoubtedly, the best performance that I saw was Der Sprung über den Schatten. I would go so far as to say that the former Mikhailovsky is the finest musical theatre in Russia. As far as performance is concerned, only La Scala in Milan can compete. The production is ingenious. The orchestra is beyond all praise ... Samosud is without equals in the West.” Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinksy wrote: “I was completely stunned when I heard Sprung über den Schatten. To say that the orchestra sounds ideal is an understatement. I am unable to recall similar purity, lightness, wealth of nuances or the beauty of sound with which the orchestra performs the opera. The conductor’s knowledge of the score is phenomenal. The singers are superb... Putting my hand on my heart, I can honestly say that there is nothing like it in Europe.”

Another feature of the Maly programmes in the first seasons was light-hearted works. Among the most popular productions were the operettas of Alexei Feona, Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1922) and Franz Lehár’s Eva (1923) and La danza delle libellule (1924). Similar works were subsequently staged by Sergei Radlov (The Bridegrooms on Wheels after Virgilio Ranzato’s Cin-Ci-La in 1926), Victor Rappoport (Nikolai Strelnikov’s The Black Amulet in 1927), Nikolai Petrov (Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène in 1931) and Emmanuel Kaplan (Jean-Robert Planquette’s Les cloches de Corneville in 1932).

Nikolai Smolich understood the importance of such a repertorial policy, affirming the theatre’s right to stage works of not only a “heroic-bombastic type,” but also those with “grand major and up-beat entertainment value.” He himself staged four operettas in these years – Franz Lehár’s Wo die Lerche singt (1923), Leo Fall’s Die spanische Nachtigall (1924), Franz Lehár’s Die gelbe Jacke (1925) and Joseph Martin Kraus’s The Clown (1927). Die gelbe Jacke was particularly successful and was mounted over four hundred times.

Pavel Zhuravlenko, Vera Stratanovich, Stepan Balashov, Mikhail Rostovtsev, Antonina Popova-Zhuravlenko, Yevgeny Olkhovsky and Valery Raikov all made memorable performances in operetta productions. Other outstanding artists switched over from drama, including Boris Gorin-Goryainov and Elena Karyakina. The result was a “synthetically inclined” troupe, distinguishing the Maly from other opera companies. Equally importantly, the operetta productions attracted wide sections of the public. The Maly became one of the most popular theatres in the city, confirming its reputation with a successful residency in Moscow in 1926.

The following important stage in the history of the theatre is linked to the start of collaborations with Dmitry Shostakovich. Shostakovich’s opera-anecdote The Nose, based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, was premiered at the Maly in 1930. Although decades had to pass before Shostakovich’s opera was fully appreciated, the composer nevertheless confessed in a letter written to Nikolai Smolich in 1930: “I regard you as the only director to whom I can entrust my opera or any other composition for the musical theatre.” In 1934, he permitted Smolich to stage another opera – The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Unfortunately, in 1936, an article entitled Confusion Instead of Music was published in Pravda, criticising the principles of Shostakovich’s opera and effectively banishing the composer from the opera theatre forever.

There were few classical operas in the Maly repertoire in the 1920s. The most noteworthy works were Victor Rappoport’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff in 1925 in the sets of Nikolai Akimov. Nikolai Smolich’s version of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden evoked heated debate, while Emmanuel Kaplan’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale was highly praised. Kaplan was also responsible for a critical reinterpretation of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1932).

The first really successful work at the Maly Theatre was Georges Bizet’s Carmen, thanks to the desire of Samosud and Smolich to escape the traditional clichés of the score and Nadezhda Welter’s performance as Carmen. Following the success of Carmen, the theatre rehearsed Valery Zhelobinsky’s The Peasant of Kamarino, an opera based on Ivan Bolotnikov’s popular uprising during the Time of Troubles and inspired by traditional folk musical dramas.

As a result of all these developments, the theatre experienced a creative boom in the mid-1930s, thanks to the accumulated experience of the staging of modern foreign and Soviet operas and operettas and the reinterpretation of the classics. The Maly premiered two productions that are now pearls of the Russian musical theatre – Dmitry Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (directed by Nikolai Smolich) and Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (directed by Vsyevolod Meyerhold). Meyerhold’s professional ideas were a major influence on twentieth-century composers, and the Maly was regarded as the most “Meyerholdian” of all musical theatres.

A whole new era seemed to be beginning at the Maly Theatre. An exciting new composer appeared in the form of Ivan Dzerzhinsky, who offered the company his first opera – And Quiet Flows the Don, based on the award-winning novel by Mikhail Sholokhov. Work on Dzerzhinsky’s composition lasted for three years. The first reports appeared in the press in 1933, while the premiere took place on 22 October 1935.

Max Tereshkovich, a Moscow actor and director who had studied under Meyerhold and had already worked at the Maly on The Front and the Rear in 1930, was invited to stage And Quiet Flows the Don. The sets were designed by a young artist, G. P. Rudi, although the theatre had originally planned to commission the work to Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Nadezhda Welter gave an acclaimed performance as Aksinia.

Following the major successes of The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, The Queen of Spades and And Quiet Flows the Don, the Maly Theatre was invited to perform in Moscow. Its residency in the Russian capital in March 1936 was a great success. And Quiet Flows the Don was singled out for special praise. An important factor in its success was the presence of Joseph Stalin, whose conversation with the stars of the opera was reported in all the newspapers. Soon afterwards, Samuil Samosud was offered the position of principal conductor and musical director at the Bolshoi Theatre.

Many interpreted the devices of And Quiet Flows the Don as a simple and clear formula for the creation of an opera on a modern theme. The Maly increasingly staged such similar works as Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s Virgin Soil Upturned (1937), Levon Khodzh-Einatov’s The Mutiny (1938) and Valery Zhelobinsky’s Mother (1939). The theatre also addressed the classics in this period, mounting The Tsar’s Bride (1936), Eugene Onegin (1937), Boris Godunov (1939), Cherevichki and May Night (1940).

The Maly productions were conducted by various masters. Fritz Stiedry conducted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Bed?ich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Kirill Kondrashin debuted in Madama Butterfly, La fanciulla del west and Pompadours. Eduard Grikurov, whose name is indelibly linked to the following period in the history of the theatre, also chalked up his first performances.

On the eve of the war in 1941, a number of vastly different operas were premiered at the Maly Theatre. Johann Strauss the Younger’s Der Zigeunerbaron, staged in Boris Khaikin’s own musical version in collaboration with Alexei Feona, remained in the repertoire for many years to come. Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del west, directed by Nikolai Goryainov and conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, was one of the most noteworthy achievements of the young conductor, who soon moved to the Bolshoi Theatre in December 1942.

The staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff was an important event in the history of the theatre. In November 1940, Eduard Grikurov, Emmanuel Kaplan and Simon Virsaladze began work on the opera, which was premiered on 30 March 1941. The theatre’s accompanist, Vera Yepaneshnikova, made a new translation of the libretto. Shakespeare’s hero was given a revolutionary interpretation by Valery Raikov and Zosima Abbakumov, while Simon Virsaladze’s poetic sets successfully recreated the atmosphere of Old England.

Nikolai Smolich’s revised version of Franz Lehár’s Die gelbe Jacke was premiered at the very start of the war. Just like sixteen years ago, the comic actor Mikhail Rostovtsev gave an outstanding performance. The theatre posters now carried the additional information: “In the event of an air raid, viewers can use the theatre’s shelter.”

Performances at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad ceased at the end of June 1941. Like the rest of the able-bodied population of the city, the company helped to dig anti-tank ditches and engaged in camouflage work. The Maly sent entire brigades of artists to perform at the front and in military hospitals, often appearing on the back of a lorry. The theatre was evacuated to the town of Chkalov, though at that time no one imagined that it would be three long years before the troupe would return to its native town.

Kirill Kondrashin recalled the evacuation of the Maly Theatre: “When we arrived in Chkalov, as the town of Orenburg was called at that time, a theatre turned out to be already waiting for us. This was the local operetta theatre, a tiny place with only about three hundred seats.” Despite the hunger, turmoil and incredibly difficult conditions, the theatre began holding regular shows in October 1941. Boris Khaikin fulfilled the duties of general director, while Sergei Alexeyev was the principal stage director.

The evacuated theatre mounted such operas from the classical repertoire as Pagliacci, The Queen of Spades, Le Coq d’or and Iolanta, as well as topical works by Soviet composers on the war theme that were useful for propaganda purposes – Ivan Dzerzhinsky’s The Blood of the People and Nadezhda Svetlova, Victor Voloshinov’s Stronger than Death and Mikhail Cheremukhin’s Kalinka. Humour was also sorely needed, perhaps explaining the success of Charles Alexandre Lecocq’s opéra bouffe La princesse des Canaries, conducted by Boris Khaikin. At the end of 1943, Khaikin was appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Kirov Theatre, which had been evacuated to Perm, and Eduard Grikurov took over as principal conductor of the Maly Theatre.

In May 1944, the Maly Theatre gave a number of concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. On 8 September, the company finally returned home and opened the new season on 3 November 1944 with a performance of The Tsar’s Bride. One of the most remarkable events of the season was the staging of Iolanta – mounted in Chkalov – which had not been performed in the city since 1923. The production remained in the Maly repertoire for many years and was awarded the Stalin Prize.

Two Italian operas were staged in the one evening by two recent graduates of the Conservatoire. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was mounted by Alexei Kireyev, while Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was staged by Nina Samosud, daughter of Samuil Samosud.

The Maly’s post-war repertorial plans reflected the clearly intention to resurrect the traditions of Samuil Samosud’s productions and be a “laboratory of Soviet opera.” Both parts of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace were planned for 1946; Peace was to be staged in February, followed by War in November. In July 1946, the Maly Opera also intended mounting Porgy and Bess. Although passed by the Board of Arts, George Gershwin’s opera was removed from the repertoire following the start of the Cold War.

The staging of War and Peace constitutes a separate chapter in the history of the theatre. Four hundred and fifty artists participated in the first part of Prokofiev’s epic, brought to life by Samuil Samosud, Boris Pokrovsky and Vladimir Dmitriyev. The premiere of the first eight scenes was held on 12 June 1946. Samosud recalled: “The show was very well received by the viewers and was an instant ‘hit’ in the repertoire of the Maly Theatre. By early March 1947, before the season was out, the theatre marked an original jubilee – the fiftieth performance of War and Peace, a very rare figure for a modern opera!”

Work on the second part of War and Peace began in autumn 1946, finishing with the dress rehearsal. Although the first half had won the Stalin Prize and the second half was already scheduled for 20 July 1947, the premiere did not take place. A new era of ideological control had dawned, officially intended as a clampdown on “Formalism,” but in reality aimed at stamping out all that was exciting and original in art. War and Peace was removed from the Maly repertoire.

Nikolai Rabinovich conducted two works at the theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. Bed?ich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was directed by Nikolai Goryainov in sets designed by T. Y. Shorr. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden was staged by Eduard Grikurov and Alexei Kireyev with the assistance of Emmanuel Kaplan. The Snow Maiden was mounted in sets designed by Konstantin Korovin for the previous production.

Vano Muradeli’s The Great Friendship (conducted by Eduard Grikurov, directed by Emmanuel Kaplan, sets by Alexander Tyshler) experienced an unprecedentedly short stage career after the composer was accused of Formalism in 1948. Attempting to exercise political control over the theatre, Communist Party hacks not only meddled in the repertoire during this period, but also sought to standardise the production and artistic techniques throughout all Soviet opera houses.

In 1948, there were eight classical operas in the Maly repertoire. Jacques Offenbach’s Les brigands was mounted by Nikolai Smolich and Eduard Grikurov in the sets of Tatyana Bruni. This was the first operetta to be staged at the theatre after the war, continuing the company’s pre-war policy.

In the spring of 1949, the Maly Theatre held two premieres – Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Staged by Emmanuel Kaplan and Eduard Grikurov in the sets of Valery Dorrer, Il trovatore was refreshingly free of the exaggerated melodrama so often found in other productions of Verdi’s opera. The premiere of Eugene Onegin marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Pushkin. The stage direction was entrusted to Nikolai Smolich, who had mounted Tchaikovsky’s opera with Boris Khaikin at the Maly back in 1937. The successful designs of Boris Volkov were repeated.

Boris Pokrovsky’s production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera The Voyevoda reflects another aspect of the theatre’s artistic policy in that period. The Maly often staged undeservedly forgotten or rarely performed classics, such as Peter Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki or Modest Mussorgsky’s The Fair at Sorochinsk. In an interview before the premiere of The Voyevoda, conductor Eduard Grikurov said in Evening Leningrad on 25 September 1949: “Working on the opera, the production team tried to imagine how the score would have sounded played by Tchaikovsky himself, in the latter stages of his career.”

The most important event of 1950 was the premiere of The Young Guard, an opera by Ukrainian composer Yuly Meitus, based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Fadeyev. Like the book, the opera was heavily criticised and Meitus was forced to create a second version, expanding the role of the underground Party leaders. Mikhail Isakovsky translated Andrei Malyshko’s libretto into Russian, while the show was directed by Nikolai Okhlopkov in sets designed by Vadim Ryndin.

In 1951, Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata was staged by Sergei Lemeshev and conducted by Georgy Doniyakh, with Tatyana Lavrova as Violetta Valéry, Sergei Shaposhnikov as Giorgio Germont, Vera Shestakova as Flora and Sergei Lemeshev himself in the role of Alfredo. That same season, Eduard Grikurov conducted the premiere of Leningrad composer Daniel Frenkel’s Grim River and Verdi’s I Vespri siciliani, the first ever performance of the opera in the city in the twentieth century (directed by Alexei Kireyev, sets by Simon Virsaladze). The theatre often mounted such lesser known works, and Verdi and his operas were always popular. I Vespri siciliani was one of the most successful shows in the careers of both Eduard Grikurov and Georgy Doniyakh, who was appointed principal conductor in 1956.

Following the death of Stalin and the onset of the Khrushchev Thaw in the early 1950s, the Maly Theatre was finally able to mount the work it had long dreamt of seeing on its stage – War and Peace. Not long before his own death, Sergei Prokofiev had written a collated version of his opera, which was premiered at the theatre on 31 March 1955. Directed by Boris Pokrovsky in sets created after the designs of the late Vladimir Dmitriyev, the one-night version of War and Peace ranked among the greatest achievements of the Maly Opera.

The second half of the 1950s saw the staging of many works from the classical repertoire. Emmanuel Kaplan mounted Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Esmeralda, which was conducted by Yury Bogdanov, designed by Valery Dorrer and choreographed by Yury Grigorovich. Nikolai Smolich and Alexei Kireyev continued to work at the theatre; many works were also staged by Semyon Lapirov, who gave several decades of his life to the Maly Opera.

The most interesting shows were those in which the conductor also combined the role of stage director. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka and Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Straszny dwór were directed by Yury Gamalei. Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos and a work not often performed in Russia, Gustav Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann, were staged by Georgy Doniyakh. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night was revived by Georgy Yerzhemsky, while Nikolai Rabinovich revised Johann Strauss the Younger’s Die Fledermaus with director Leonid Varpakhovsky and designer Enar Stenberg. Die Fledermaus remained in the Maly repertoire for over a decade.

Two operas were conducted at the Maly Theatre by Kurt Sanderling, who made his debut on the opera stage in Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. The critics noted the outstanding performances of the main parts in Der fliegende Holländer, particularly Alexander Modestov as the Dutchman, Tatyana Bogdanova as Senta, Mikhail Dovenmann as the Steersman. The romantic sets and costumes of Alexander Konstantinovsky and Emil Leschinsky were also praised.

This end of this period saw a change in both the repertorial and the artistic aspirations of the Maly Theatre. The turn of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the company’s quests for its own unique personality. The reputation of the Maly as a “laboratory of Soviet opera” had clearly outlived itself, as Soviet operas had not brought anything new in the sense of musical or scenic imagery. Similarly, the last major works of classical opera – the compositions of Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich and Dmitry Kabalevsky – were already one and a half decades old. By the early 1960s, the theatre was beginning to lose its leading place in the world of music.

Recalling the recent success enjoyed by the theatre when it staged Grim River in 1951, the Maly once again turned to the oeuvre of Daniel Frenkel. This time, the opera company mounted A Girl Without a Dowry, a musical version of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name. The theatre also staged Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s rarely performed opera La Muette de Portici, in which the main role is performed not by an opera singer, but by a ballet dancer. Choreographer Boris Fenster, who had already staged Jacques Offenbach’s Justine Favare at the theatre, was invited to collaborate with the opera company.

Semyon Lapirov revived La bohème in the former sets of Konstantin Korovin, introducing young soloists into the old production. A new version of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or, directed by Andrei Tutyshkin and conducted by Yury Bogdanov, suggested that the Maly was following its traditional orientation on the classics. The modest success of Le Coq d’or was particularly welcome after the failure of The First Spring, a new opera by Ukrainian composer German Zhukovsky.

Planning a new residency in Moscow, the theatre collaborated with talented Bulgarian conductor Assen Naidenov. The most important project was Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. Yevgeny Sokovnin, an experienced director who had worked with the Bolshoi and Kirov Theatres in the 1940s and 1950s, was invited from Moscow to mount the opera, while the sets were designed by Sergei Solomko.

During its residency in Moscow in 1962, the Maly mostly performed such classics as Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (directed by Semyon Lapirov), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or (directed by Andrei Tutyshkin) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (directed by Yevgeny Sokovnin). The repertoire badly lacked the operas of a new generation of Russian composers and the classics of the twentieth century. Yury Petrov was asked to resolve this task when he was invited to the theatre as principal stage director.

Yury Petrov planned to mount the operas of such talented young composers as Kirill Molchanov (Romeo, Juliet and Darkness) and Rodion Shchedrin (Not Only Love) and the classical works of Sergei Prokofiev (The Love of Three Oranges, The Gambler, The Fiery Angel), Dmitry Shostakovich (Katerina Izmailova), Dmitry Kabalevsky (Colas Breugnon), George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Benjamin Britten (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Leos Janácek (Príhody Lisky Bystrousky). Unfortunately, he was unable to turn the Maly into a modern opera theatre, following the failure of his first production – Kirill Molchanov’s Romeo, Juliet and Darkness.

The Maly nevertheless continued to mount twentieth-century operas. Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges and Dmitry Shostakovich’s Katerina Izmailova appeared in the repertoire. The staging of Shostakovich’s revised score was not without controversy. Emil Pasynkov, a talented student of Emmanuel Kaplan at the Leningrad Conservatoire, was invited from Novosibirsk to direct the opera. He demonstratively dissociated himself from the style and imagery of The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, mounted at the theatre by Nikolai Smolich and Samuil Samosud in the 1930s.

In the 1960s, the Maly Opera underwent a series of fundamental changes under the joint leadership of principal stage director Emil Pasynkov and chief conductor Alexander Dmitriyev. This was only possible on the basis of twentieth-century opera. The theatre staged new versions of Dmitry Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon (1969), George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1971) and Rodion Shchedrin’s Not Only Love (1972).

The production of Colas Breugnon evoked heated debate, avoiding the stereotypes of social conflict typical of the 1930s and directly addressing the relationship between the artist and life. The version of Porgy and Bess was also subjected to important changes. The theatre rejected not only the overture, but also the finale. Pasynkov ended the opera with the lullaby sung by Serena Robbins as she rocks Clara’s baby on her lap.

Iphigénie (1972) was conceived as an opera-ballet triptych, consisting of a one-act arrangement of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Aulide, the dance divertissement Clytemnestre and a one-act version of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Leading the dramatis personae out onto the proscenium and a sacrificial altar, the director seemed to be bringing the audience closer to the tragic inner conflicts of the heroes.

Following the high drama of Iphigénie, Emil Pasynkov’s next project was a comic production of Jean-Robert Planquette’s operetta Les cloches de Corneville. The theatre’s reflections on the theme of personal freedom continued in 1977 in a new version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which explored the sense of disconnection between the eponymous hero and the surrounding world.

Under Emil Pasynkov’s artistic leadership, a number of leading creative personalities blossomed at the Maly Theatre in the 1970s. These were Yevgenia Gorokhovskaya, Tatyana Novikova, Sergei Leiferkus, Nikolai Okhotnikov, Yury Marusin and Valery Lebed.

In the 1970s, the creative energy at the theatre provided the impetus for new professional quests and experiments. In 1973, the Maly founded a Youth Creative Studio, later transformed into the Creative Club. The aim of this initiative of young directors, choreographers and designers was to ensure that the theatre interacted with the audience in a lively and modern way. Much debate surrounded the experimental staging of Mitch Lee’s musical The Man of La Mancha (1978), which was conducted by Yury Temirkanov.

In 1973, a young stage director called Alexander Petrov, a student of Emil Pasynkov, made his debut at the Maly Theatre. While still a pupil of the Leningrad Conservatoire, he mounted a production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta in sets designed by Alla Tsesevich.

One of Alexander Petrov’s most successful projects at the theatre was his production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in 1976. Although based on a tale by fourteenth-century Tuscan writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the director sought inspiration in twentieth-century cinema, particularly the films of Charlie Chaplin and Alberto Sordi. He worked with two young designers, Irina Press and Vyacheslav Okunev, a collaboration later extended to include conductor Pavel Bubelnikov.

Alexander Petrov’s next major work for the company was his production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium in 1979. The Italian composer’s melodrama tells the story of Madame Flora, a greedy fraud who becomes the victim of her own false creations. The show was performed in the domestic theatre of the Yussupov Palace on the River Moika. Following The Medium, Alexander Petrov turned to a more classical melodrama – Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, which was mounted at the Maly Theatre at the end of 1979.

The theatre addressed the lesser-known musical heritage of Dmitry Shostakovich, staging the composer’s version of Alexander Pushkin’s The Tale of the Priest and his Workman Balda. Although Shostakovich had no finished work with this title, he had written several musical numbers for the cartoon of the same name in the 1930s. This material formed the basis of Alexander Petrov’s musical drama in 1980.

The experiments of the 1970s paved the way for a series of dynamic and entertaining shows in the following decades. The 1980s and 1990s constitute a special chapter in the history of the theatre and are synonymous with the name of director Stanislav Gaudasinsky, who was invited to join the company at the very end of the 1970s.

Stanislav Gaudasinsky’s first production was Sergei Slonimsky’s opera Mary Stuart. This show was an important event in the cultural life of Leningrad, not only because Gaudasinsky was staging a new composition by a contemporary composer already acknowledged in the world of music and opera, but also because it signalled the appearance of a new director with his own original style. Unlike most “Soviet operas,” Mary Stuart remained in the repertoire for a long time and was performed more than a hundred times.

Stanislav Gaudasinsky was fascinated by major historical events and works of classical literature. When staging operas by contemporary composers, he preferred works based on historical figures – Sergei Slonimsky’s Mary Stuart (1980), Vladimir Kobekin’s Pugachev (1983) and Alexander Petrov’s Peter the Great (1993) – or the masterpieces of world literature – Alexei Shablin’s The Taming of the Shrew (1983), based on the comedy by William Shakespeare; Dorothea (1985), after Rodion Shchedrin’s comedy The Duenna; Tikhon Khrennikov’s The Emperor’s New Clothes (1988), based on the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen; Alexander Kholminov’s The Brothers Karamazov (1990), after the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The only exception was Le Fou (1990), an opera by modern French composer Marcel Landowski. Although the title did not evoke associations with any concrete historical personality, the hero was one of the most popular figures in modern literature – the mad scientist.

The main task facing the theatre in the 1980s was restoring the classics to the Maly stage. One by one, the masterpieces of Russian opera appeared in the repertoire – Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (1982) and Eugene Onegin (1985), Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1987) and Khovanshchina (1988), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or (1989) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1994) and Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor (1991).

In the mid-1990s, the Maly turned its attention to the classics of West European opera. Stanislav Gaudasinsky staged three works portraying a classical opera heroine – Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata (1995), Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1998) and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (1999). This “trilogy” recalled one of his earliest projects, Three Novellas about a Woman (1985), a triptych of one-act operas – Vitaly Gubarenko’s The Love Letters, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Il telefono and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona.

The operas mounted by other directors continued the repertorial policy of the Maly Theatre. The productions of American composer Kirk Mitchem’s Tartuffe (based on the comedy by Molière) by Andrei Bashlovkin in 1996 and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni by German director Klaus Wagner in 1997 reflected the theatre’s interest in the Western opera repertoire. The gallery of male portraits was supplemented by Stanislav Gaudasinsky’s production of Rigoletto in 1999.

Under the leadership of Stanislav Gaudasinsky, the Maly Theatre was transformed into a genuine school of acting mastery, which also produced soloists for the Kirov Theatre. Vladimir Ognovenko and Vladimir Vaneyev went on to give sparkling performances on the Mariinsky stage, acquiring the status of international opera stars.

The career of Yevgenia Gorokhovskaya began at the Maly Theatre, where the talent of Lyubov Kazarnovskaya also bloomed. The backbone of the opera company was such stars as Nina Romanova, Larisa Tedtoyeva, Elena Ustinova, Alexander Nenadovsky, Nikolai Kopylov, Vladimir Pishchayev, Valentina Yuzvenko and Victor Lukianov, Nikolai Ostrovsky, Tatyana Cherkasova, Elena Borisevich and Sergei Safenin. These experienced masters performed alongside Yury Ivshin, Elena Morozova, Natalia Mironova, Natalia Biryukova, Vasily Spichko, Yulia Gertseva, Natalia Yevstafieva and Alexander Matveyev.

Some of the most memorable roles were Inessa Prosalovskaya’s Mary Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart), Katharina (The Taming of the Shrew) and Tatyana (Eugene Onegin); Vladimir Pankratov’s Earl of Bothwell (Mary Stuart), Baptista (The Taming of the Shrew) and Don Quixote (Don Quichotte); Nina Romanova’s Queen Elizabeth (Mary Stuart), Marfa (Khovanshchina), Olga (Eugene Onegin) and the Countess (The Queen of Spades); Vladimir Pishchayev’s Hermann (The Queen of Spades) and Don José (Carmen); Elena Ustinova’s Dorine (Tartuffe) and Adele (Die Fledermaus); Victor Lukianov’s comic roles and Nikolai Ostrovsky’s Simpleton (Boris Godunov).

Among designers to collaborate with the theatre in those years were Semyon Pastukh, Alexander Gorenstein, Alexander Orlov, Vyacheslav Okunev, Irina Cherednikova and brothers Victor and Raphael Volsky. Gaudasinsky’s main musical partnerships were with Valentin Kozhin and Andrei Anikhanov. The latter first conducted in 1989, when he was still a Conservatoire student, before replacing Kozhin as principal conductor of the Maly Theatre.

The Maly Opera won many official awards during this period, including the State Prize for Mary Stuart (1981), the Theatrical Union prize for Boris Godunov (1987), the St Petersburg Mayor’s Prize for Literature and Art for Peter the Great (1994) and Golden Soffits for The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1994) and Carmen (1998). Perhaps the best indication of the high professional standards of the company, however, was its new international status.

In 1984, the Maly Theatre performed its first foreign shows. From that time onwards, the company pursued an active and successful touring policy, travelling to Italy (1984, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1992), Great Britain (1986), France (1990, 1991, 1993), Greece (1992, 2000), Germany (1995, 1997, 1998, 1999), Holland (1994, 1995), Japan (1991, 1996, 1998), United States (1992) and Portugal (1993). The geography of the tours broadened with each passing year, quickly expanding beyond the bounds of Europe. Foreign opera-goers learnt to their surprise that St Petersburg boasted not only the rich traditions of the Kirov Opera (Mariinsky Theatre), but also a comparatively young opera company with its own artistic policy and personality.

In 1989, the Maly Theatre was renamed in honour of Modest Mussorgsky. Twelve years later, it reverted to its original name of Mikhailovsky Theatre. In 2007, Stanislav Gaudasinsky was replaced as general director by Russian businessman Vladimir Kekhman, ushering in a whole new period in the history of the opera company.

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