Russian stage direction patriarch, Yuri Lyubimov
At the age of 95, one of Russia's most admired theatre directors, Yuri Lyubimov, is staging his first ever production at the Bolshoi Theatre
, a boldly pared-down version of Borodin's opera "Prince Igor".
Lyubimov founded and headed Moscow's Taganka Theatre for 50 years, winning worldwide renown for his hugely visual and experimental shows. He quit the theatre two years ago but continues to work despite his advanced age.
"Prince Igor" is the Bolshoi's first collaboration with Lyubimov, who is a one-man institution in Russia's theatre community, known for his unique style and near-authoritarian treatment of actors.
Last year Lyubimov suffered a heart attack that set back the Bolshoi premiere by about six months. But he attended every rehearsal in the tense run-up to the June 8 premiere of the work, making it clear that he was very much in charge.
At a recent rehearsal, sitting at a desk set up in the Bolshoi's stalls wrapped in his signature scarf, Lyubimov held heated discussions with his assistants, complaining loudly and pointing with the walking stick that he has used since health troubles last year.
The opera's libretto is based on one of Russia's oldest pieces of literature, the 12th century "Tale of Igor's Campaign" about the unsuccessful attempt by a Russian prince to wage war against the Polovtsian tribes, the nomadic steppe warriors living in the south of the country.With help from composers Pavel Karmanov and Vladimir Martynov, he has significantly reduced the running time of the opera -- which has been a staple of the Bolshoi repertoire since 1898 -- from four hours to around two and a half hours.
Lyubimov's set bears almost no resemblance to the Bolshoi's historical opulent set used for the opera.
The design is more metaphorical and subdued employing Lyubimov's signature touches such as the use of shadows and colour. The ambush of Prince Igor's army by Polovtsians involved actors descending onto the stage via ropes against a giant red sun.
"Lyubimov is a person who created his own style, and he cannot change it just because his production is at the Bolshoi.""Nothing is left from the traditional 'Prince Igor'," said set designer Zinovy Margolin, describing working on the project with Lyubimov as "torturous".
The opera was a lengthy project for composer Alexander Borodin, one of Russia's so-called "Mighty Handful" of five music greats of the 19th century which include Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Modest Mussorgsky.
Borodin was a professional chemist who lectured at a medical school and was active in campaigning for women's rights.
With such a busy schedule, Borodin worked on "Prince Igor" for 18 years up to his sudden death in 1887, when he left the score as a heap of papers with no beginning or end. His composer friends painstakingly put it together, sometimes making up the missing pieces of the puzzle themselves.
Perhaps treating "Prince Igor" as the work-in-progress that it was at time of Borodin's death, Lyubimov "chose the music needed for his concept, and removed the music that didn't fit", resulting in the chopped version, said Bolshoi's music director and chief conductor Vassily Sinaisky.
The radical shortening keeps most of the well-known arias, but some cuts in the four-act opera have irked the critics, a number of whom joked ahead of the premiere that they would sing the missing bits from the audience.
Neither were they overly enamoured with Lyubimov's decision to reinstate the opera's famous ballet insert, the Polovtsian Dances, choreographed in 1934 by Kasyan Goleizovsky, an experimental choreographer who was a major influence on ballet titan George Balanchine.
"The result of efforts by one of the greatest directors of the 20th century in the Bolshoi Theatre is a light opera performance with a popular dance number," the daily Kommersant wrote disparagingly, complaining of a lack of radical vision from a director whose theatre work is often politically charged.
Born before the 1917 revolution, Lyubimov has been directing avant-garde theatre productions since the 1960s. Most of his opera work was done in the West, specifically after his Soviet citizenship was temporarily rescinded in 1984 over his dissenting views.
In 2011 he quit the Taganka Theatre after leading it for half a century, following an ugly fall-out with the troupe which he accused of being lazy and only interested in money.