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Screen as the second best substitute

Two screenings at the Barbican: Rigolleto (Royal Opera House, London) and The Seagull (Satirikon, Moscow)

A new experience which is different from just watching a show live or just watching a show on screen was to watch the shows that one has seen on stage, but this time on screen. And the fact that I wanted to see them again was obviously a proof that I enjoyed them immensely when I saw them alive, so now it was time to pay closer attention to details of both performances and enjoy my favourite singers and actors from a closer perspective.

Rigoletto (live from ROH, London)

‘Rigoletto’ at Royal Opera House is a revival of David McVicar’s production of 2001 and seems to be done in memory of the deceased baritone Dmitry Khvorostovsky who was supposed to alternate with Dimitri Plananias in the role of the court jester who gives the opera, based on Hugo’s ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’, its title. The production of McVicar tries to bring out the contrast between the lavishness and unrestrained sexuality that extinguishes any possibility of true emotion that is Duke and his court's mode of existence, and the austerity and resulting innocence and strength of feelings that is Rigolletto’s and Gilda’s lives. The director goes into great length and much detail in showing us the moeurs of Duke of Mantua’s court. It resembles a mix between pictures of Rubens and shots from Tinto Brass’s Caligula, while in the choice of costumes aimes at primary colours palette characteristic of Renaissance paintings. Overall, one gets a good feeling of excess and abundance of sexual pleasures, with some performers fully undressing and imitating sex on opera stage.

Duke of Mantua - sung by Michael Fabiano – is rather one amongst the many than a ruler here, and his authority over them is not very overtly pronounced here - he is more of a Lorenzaccio figure here, sowing what he has riped. Gilda’s fate is already there from the very beginning as somebody else’s daughter is crying in the first scenes near the big armchair representing the Duke’s throne. Generally, all consequent scenes involving the court were a bit messy and with many people moving around the stage one lost the general thread of action and was distracted from Verdi’s music. The set (design by Michael Vale) also gave the impression of the ending from the very beginning, as it was leaning diagonally and becoming either the outside wall of the Duke’s palace or the insides of Rigoletto’s (or Sparafucile’s room) when turning at 180 degrees. This diagonal line was a symbol of both sensual decline and an individual fate that could only run downhill, with the world being decadent as it is. But the best part of the evening (and of course for that reason one should have watched it alive) was performers singing and Verdi’s score with Alexander Joel conducting. Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto, Michael Fabiano as Duke, and also Andrea Mastroni and Nadia Krasteva in the roles of Scarafucile and his sister were excellent, but my devotion went unreservedly to Lucy Crowe.

After Covent Garden’s Mitridate (an early Mozart opera) one could not become an addict of her voice and lyrical (while also powerful) intoning, and she was wonderful in her solo arias, namely the happy one after she met ‘the poor student’ and the desolate one after having been brought to his quarters. She was also excellent in her duets with Platanias, always bringing in that closeness of father and daughter through intertwining her voice with that of her partner, and always powerfully delivering her aria in more composite places of the opera, like the one when she is deciding to sacrifice herself. Michael Fabiano had a more powerful voice than Ivan Magrì whom I also heard when watching the production alive, but he probably was not acting the role to the fullest and was not as well suited as Magrì to the role of a handsome man whose frivolities can still be potentially forgiven because of his youth, beauty and carelessness. Platanias, on the contrary, was acting superbly, rubbing off our memories any possibilites of other performer in this role – apart, of course, from Khvorostovsky, who was remembered by singers in the interval of the broadcast.

The real bonus of watching it on screen, though, was being able to listen to Alexander Joel who explained how Verdi highlighted the moods of characters in the opera through clever use of particular instruments associated with happiness (flute) or distress (oboe), and exploring unexpected turns to minor keys with a melody that could have been done in major. It is wonderful to re-live some of moments from ROH on screen, but they remind us how big an experience it is to listen to it while being there, either sitting comfortably in stalls or enjoying it from standing seats.

The Seagull (part of Stage Russia program, a recording from Satirikon Theatre, Moscow)

Another show that was broadcast in the Barbican was the famous ‘Seagull’ from Satirikon Theatre in Moscow, directed by Yuri Butusov, that has been getting a cult status in Russia, with some fan groups and individuals watching this production for up to 30 times. This production is not an ordinary one – it is a personal outcry from the director who turns Chekhov’s play upside down without ever missing or changing a single line of the text. In preparing this show, Butusov worked with his long-time collaborator, the set designer Alexander Shishkin, his partner on all other productions in Satirikon to where Butusov has been continously invited as an associate director. The group of actors who worked with Butusov were also well known to him, as in Russia actors do not work on commisions and projects, but are dedicated to an idea of a repertoire company, and almost all of the performers had been in other Butusov works in Satirikon over the previous years. As the actor Denis Sukhanov told me in an interview, the rehearsal process for The Seagull was also not ordinary, as nobody knew who would play whom and it was determined only after collaborative series of trials and studies, where the important goal was not to create a character but to learn to communicate with the colleagues through Chekhov’s text. This approach corresponds fully to Chekhov’s intention, as the innovativeness of the play was in the fact that it was not about someone in particular, but about ‘a group without centre’, in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s words. The play was trying to trace common pursuits, fears, hopes and aspirations of a tightly knit group of people who don’t realize or appreciate they are connected by so many similar traits and actually behave and act in a vacuum of misunderstood desires and wrongly aimed deeds.

Butusov brings The Seagull to a very personal and accute level of a stage message. I think that the secret of this production becoming so famous in Moscow is actually in its complete accessibility to audiences of all types and ages, notwithstanding its overall avant-garde outlook and methods. With Butusov you don’t think of avant-garde, you just let the director and actors lead you through their discoveries however odd they may seem at first. On this path you quickly become aware that they are going to be acute, personal and resembling Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in their directness and sincerity. The use of objects (very characeristic for Butusov, it could be anything, from apples and flowers to car tires and ropes), the use of rock music (Era, Procol Harum, Yiruma, Roger Eno, Wardrobe, T Bone Burnett, and also Faustas Latenas), and the gimmicks of each character all are dictated by a particular message of the director. The more you watch The Seagull, the more you understand how transparent, clear and sincere everything in this show is. Music helps on this journey, as each chosen fragment accetuates the scene either in contrast or in a complement to the main message, like with T Bone Burnett's 'It's Not Too Late', when actors first listen to it with hope, and then with devastating understanding that it might be too late for a true life, in fact. And the whole show gets to your deepest self every time you watch it, because you trust it, you kind of learn to do it as the time passes and your soul warms up to it, as you would to somebody very eccentric who in fact tells you the most important things in your life. This Seagull gets on the strings which are usually buried inside the heart, and touches the themes that are the most painful: the need to be accepted and known, the uncertainty and impossibility of mutual love, the strong hold of idealistic conceptions over our lives and their constant fall into banality and everyday routine.

There are two main themes in this Seagull which never fail to touch the core of my being – that of the talent wishing to be understood and the unrequited love which is shown by Chekhov as the only normal and inevitable condition of the true one. Butusov shows that longing to be heard and understood is not specific for ‘artists’ only – the doctor Dorn (Artem Osipov) proves to be much more artistic and longing for success and applause than the famous writer Trigorin (Denis Sukhanov), who never understands what the real fame is. The actress Arkadina’s (Polina Raykina) brother Sorin (Vladimir Bolshov) has strong hidden desires to be appreciated and lead the life he wants, while he freely abandons this right to his housekeeper Shamraev and his famous sister, who is never the happier from leading the life everybody would envy. Nina (Agrippina Steklova) is happy only when she has nothing apart from dreams of happiness and fame, but her love for Trigorin 'just happens' and stays even when she is most desolate and abandoned by him. Butusov traces with special attention how this worm of fame destroys her, as there is nothing to it (as was obvious already in Trigorin’s tired monologue), and Treplev (Timofey Tribuntsev) is only happy when he thinks that he is loved by Nina, while Butusov hints that even this moment never existed for him. Butusov himself wants to be with his actors on stage, and wants to deliver Treplev’s monologues himself, doing it once in the fourth act, but coming on stage in the end of every act, acting as a creator and a destroyer of the place where action takes place. Naturally, the obvious metaphor of Treplev as the creator of the play and of the whole universe comes to mind, and Butusov wants to be in the shoes of this omnipotency for some time, but then he bursts his wounds open showing us that his own theatrical designs could be burnt down or ripped apart, usually by the director's own hands.

Butusov, apart from becoming Treplev himself, invites other actors to live in the skins of others, physically stating that they are all one ‘world’s soul’ (the image from Treplev’s play): Lika Nikiforova who plays Polina Andreevna, also doubles for Arkadina in the most sensual moments, while main female-male pairs (Masha – Mariana Spivak, the star of Zvyagintsev’s current film ‘Loveless’ and Medvedenko – Anton Shamraev, Dorn and Polina, Trigorin and Nina) take turns to play out the final dialogue between Nina and Treplev before Tribuntsev and Steklova themselves say it. Butusov also taps on our nightmares and unconscious fears. Many parts of Chekhov’s play are played and replayed not only to let actors unite as a group, but also to re-live them in variations where wheelchairs, gory masks and artificial limbs begin to feature, and thus innermost fears are in fact objectified, which was not characteristic of Chekhov at all. This Seagull could be called ‘the teenager Seagull’ in the way its sincerity and screaming, despairing qualities are reaching out to our memories of growing up and being 500 percent serious about everything that happens to us, especially where love and finding one’s own voice are concerned. And somehow, one longs to get back to this naïve seriousness, to this massive outcry in the desert silence of space around us, but one gets only a glimpse of ‘what life should be’ while getting drawn into ever-present Shamraev’s (Anton Kuznetsov) horrible and rude, but also quite despairing acts of banality. And one inevitably cries in the end of this Seagull.

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