“Where Russians see mortal passions, the French find a reason to smile and make a joke”


Until now, these operas have never been onstage together. However, there is much that unites them. Both operas were born in the beginning of the 20th century. The motive force of their plots is the love passion of several men towards one woman, which is fuelled by southern blood: the first story takes place in Venice, the second in Toledo. The fast-moving pace in both operas is also similar: its rapid pulse, like a barometer, reflects the anxious atmosphere created by the approaching global cataclysms of the first part of the 20th century.

However, the operas-peers also contrast with each other. Maddalena, written by the twenty-two-year-old Prokofiev (until this day it has remained little known to opera lovers as well as specialists) is a dark, almost expressionistic tragedy. Its music, which pulses from the very first bars, and the action, which is saturated with thirst and sudden explosions of passion, everything is leading to a bloody culmination – the fight for Maddalena, which is deadly for both participants. (With all the seriousness of this situation, we are reminded of battle scenes and fights that impressed the young Prokofiev, one of such scenes can be observed in his opera for children The Giant).

Unlike Maddalena, L’heure espagnole by Ravel is a light social-class comedy. The pulsing sensuality of its music is off set by the imagery of sounds and ironic references to Spanish tunes. The plot of the opera is created out of the love adventures of Concepción, the attractive wife of a clockmaker, who is trying to cheat on her husband with three ardent admirers for an hour. One of her approaches turns out to be successful…

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Alexandra Nanoshkina (Concepción), Vladislavs Nastavševs (stage director), Vasily Sokolov (Ramiro).
Photo by Pavel Rychkov.

The performance is being staged by the team formed for the production of the opera Les pêcheurs de perles by G. Bizet, the premiere of which was held on the Chamber Stage at the end of last year. The members are director Vladislavs Nastavševs (this time he is also set and costume designer), conductor Alexey Vereshchagin and lighting designer Anton Stikhin.

The following singers are featured in the opera Maddalena: Irina Alekseenko, Maria Lobanova and Ksenia Muslanova (the leading female part), Alexander Chernov and Mikhail Yanenko (Genaro), Roman Bobrov, Andrei Breus and Dmitry Cheblykov (Stenio). In the opera L’heure espagnole — Anna Bauman, Alexandra Nanoshkina and Anna Semenyuk (Concepción), Valery Makarov and Pyotr Melentyev (Gonzalve, a student poet), Alexander Markeev, Alexei Prokopyev and Alexei Smirnov (Iñigo, a banker), Alexander Polkovnikov and Vasily Sokolov (Ramiro, a muleteer).

According to the director of this production, Vladislavs Nastavševs, performing Maddalena and L’heure espagnole on the same night, a tragedy and comedy, allows us to feel deeply the differences between the Russian and French cultures: “Where Russian see mortal passions, the French find a reason to smile and make a joke”.

Vladislavs Nastavševs:
— The fact what men do is important in Maddalena. Gerano is an artist, Stenio is a scientist- alchemist. Both are looking for an unattainable ideal. In some way, Maddalena is an embodiment of this ideal. The question is what happens when a man finds his ideal? It turns out to be the story of Icarus flying towards the sun. This is what interests me, not the love triangle, which is too obvious.

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Roman Bobrov (Stenio). Photo by Pavel Rychkov.

Maddalena is more of an image than a woman. The image of changeable passion, I would compare her with Medea. The heroine of the Ancient Greek tragedy is a woman, a mother but at the same time she is a demigod. It allows me to show a certain superior power, which is grander and stronger than us, which supresses us in the end. The truth reveals itself in the very last moment.

In Maddalena and L’heure espagnole the artists have unified costumes. This idea departs from the era both operas were written: the beginning of the 20th century. In Maddalena, they are three-piece suits for the men and blouses with long skirts for the women. In L’heure espagnole the soloists are dressed in accordance with the fashion of the beginning of the 20th century and the character artists wear flesh-coloured tights. On the one hand, the costumes should be neutral, not to attract attention and distract from the vocals. On the other hand, the sensuality and flesh, the beauty of bodies (close to the ballet aesthetic) is highlighted by the colour of the leotards.

Both works are incredibly sensual, I would even say tactile. They will be connected onstage with body language. Maddalena as well as L’heure espagnole involves character artists of the Bolshoi Theatre. In the beginning of the first part of the performance, they play parts of orchestra members, who participate in a rehearsal by imitating playing musical instruments using their bodies. Backlighting of the music stands changes its colour in accordance with the movements of the music.

Later, when it is time for the L’heure espagnole, the bodies of the character artists will depict a clock mechanism. Choreographer Ekaterina Mironova is working on making their movements which is typical for clockwork toys. Despite the humour and irony, the theme of mercilessness and rigidity of time in the opera by Ravel is extremely important. Time is going, and one has to manage to enjoy life, to enjoy what one’s young body could give them.

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Alexandra Nanoshkina (Concepción), Valery Makarov (Gonzalve). Photo by Pavel Rychkov

Prokofiev has this theme too. However, Prokofiev and Ravel worked with time in a totally different manner. If in Prokofiev’s view it is night from sunset to sunrise and the whole action takes just fifty minutes, which goes really fast, Ravel makes it the opposite way. The action unfolds within an hour, but it feels like an eternity. Time does not seem to exist; everything is flooded with the hot sun of the Spanish siesta. We also know that this feeling is deceiving, because only one hour is assigned for everything. A contest with time is always exciting and entertaining, isn’t it?

Interviewed by Olesya Bobrik