Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Dark Times for UK-Russian Cultural Relations

The 2014 UK-Russia Year of Culture has its work cut out. Events in the two countries are intended to bring their peoples together through a celebration of their respective contemporary cultures. But now, understandably, the British government has cut it loose and no officials will be participating from now on. Russia, quite comically, is trying to give the image of business as usual. Fat chance of that.
But the show goes on. None of the exhibitions or shows in either country has been cancelled, and all will take place with or without diplomats in attendance. (In fact, most have already taken place – if the British Council was calculating that worsening diplomatic relations would make later events more difficult, then that was a good call.)
The lack of political involvement could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As diplomatic relations sour, the need for cultural collaboration becomes all the greater, even when the context makes that an increasingly unlikely proposition.
Even before the current standoff, British attitudes to contemporary Russian culture and society were jaded, and well beyond anything that Putin or his regime could be blamed for. Putin himself has become a bogeyman for the Western media, a position that suits him well, and that will probably further his aims. But it is as much a result of suspicion of Russians in general as it is of his actions.
Popular attitudes in the West to Russia are deeply paradoxical. Typically, the representation of Russia in an English-language newspaper will begin with a front page story about corruption or some other evil in the Russian government, probably based in fact but reported in terms of Cold War stereotypes and clichés that make corruption in Slavic lands a foregone conclusion. Then you turn to the second page and find an effusive review of the latest Mariinsky tour to Covent Garden. That Russian culture is OK because it is old (an image that Russian opera and ballet companies feed with the stiflingly traditional fare they always take on tour). Nineteenth century Russian culture has become like Classical Greek culture – it has nothing to do with the people who actually live there now.
Contemporary Russian culture gets a rough ride in the West. Vladimir Jurowski, to his credit, has promoted a number of living Russian composers – Martynov and Raskatov among others - with the London Philharmonic. He hasn’t been thanked for it though, and the reviews have been universally negative (confession: I’ve been responsible for a few myself). But it is incumbent upon Western audiences to hear new music in terms of its cultural context, or at least not to dismiss it just for failing to meet our current modernist and individualist paradigms.
What’s left of the UK-Russia Year of Culture looks unlikely to tackle any of these issues in any depth, but anything that it can do to help is in the interests of both peoples. The recent activities of the Putin administration are rapidly forcing a pariah status on Russia. The West is right to impose sanctions and to put pressure on the government through by any necessary diplomatic means. But the cultural corollary helps nobody, and if we continue to distance ourselves from modern Russia, its culture and society, while still celebrating the Tchaikovsky ballets it periodically sends us, then sceptical Russians are right to see our view of them as deeply hypocritical.  

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Crimea - The Opera

St Petersburg Chamber Opera

Public life is changing fast in Russia, and like all other media, the arts are increasingly put to the service of unchecked nationalist propaganda. I was in St Petersburg last week and attended the press conference and dress rehearsal for a new opera production, Crimea. Both were quite chilling, not only for the extreme rightwing messages being put across, but also for the fact the whole enterprise was presented as if it were business as usual, with no hint of dissent (even from the press), and not even a suggestion that any other interpretation of the Crimea conflict could be possible.

Echoes of the Stalin era resonate through this production, but that’s entirely deliberate. It is based on Sevastopoltsy, written in 1946 by Marian Koval. The original is about the siege of Sevastopol in 1941-2. Clearly, the subject of the original opera serves the new production well, but so too does the Socialist Realist score, all patriotic marches and mass songs. In Koval’s opera, the Soviet stand against the Nazi aggressors is compared with similar events in the Crimea War (the Russians lost that one, of course, a fact this opera chooses to brush over).

For the new production, the opera has been renamed to the more apposite Crimea, and the libretto completely rewritten. The work now takes the two previous conflicts as models for the more recent one. Comparisons between1942 and 2014 are easily drawn. The Germans remain the aggressors, or among them at least. Angela Merkel is among the vilified politicians, and footage is shown of her on a screen that only a few minutes earlier showed Luftwaffe bombers. Comparisons between the Russian leaders of the three centuries are more problematic, but are overcome by the introduction of a sharp-suited modern-day narrator, Putin in all but name.
The production is being staged at the St Petersburg Chamber Opera, a small company based in a large town house near the Mariinsky. It is the brainchild of the company’s artistic director, Yuri Alexandrov. He held court at the press conference ahead of the dress rehearsal, and expounded at some length the motivations behind the project. There was a lot of political rhetoric here, all coming from a position of absolute certainty and conviction. Crimea belongs to Russia and always has, that was a given. The new Ukrainian administration didn’t get too much of a hard time. Russia’s quarrel is not with the Ukrainians, Alexandrov explained, it is with the Americans. And the Europeans? They are just blind. Despite the clear propaganda aims of this project, Alexandrov seemed convinced that he was merely presenting “the truth” and that there was no polemic dimension to it at all.

The Creative Team. Alexandrov second from the right.

The new work is described as an “opera-meeting”, and Alexandrov was keen to present it as a radical genre-busting enterprise, in which the audience play a crucial role in the performance. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The performance is staged in the round, bringing all the blood and gore closer to the audience than is comfortable. There is some Q&A, but it amounts to the audience shouting “da” or “net” on cue in response to political slogans. And for the mass song that forms the finale, a dozen or so cast members planted in the audience suddenly run on to join the chorus, as if to imply general consent on the part of all present.

Alexandrov clearly assumes his views are shared by everybody involved. Certainly, the cast and crew entered into the project with a rare enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera performance sung and acted with as much commitment and passion as this. There are many children in this production (used for emotional manipulation purposes of course) and Alexandrov explained that many of them had postponed their holidays to appear. They won’t be visiting the Crimea this summer, he mused, but their work here would ensure that they will always be able to do so in the future.

Considering the contentious views he was presenting in the press conference, Alexandrov got a very easy time in the questions afterwards. One journalist asked if references to Stalin in the original had been replaced directly with references to Putin, on the grounds that the syllable structure and rhyme could be retained. Alexandrov responded with approval to the idea (there aren’t any references to Stalin in the original so it wasn’t an option) and explained that this performance was intended as the just the first step. Hopefully, he said, the company would then take the show to Moscow. There is a point near the end that would be ideal for Putin to give an address as part of the performance. Then we could have a real conversation, he said, not just a theatrical one.   

The action takes place on a map of Crimea.

The modern-day narrator. Let’s call him “Putin”.

Nurses carrying bloodied bandages, and distributing them to the audience.

Things are good for the ethnic Russians, before the Turks/Germans/Ukrainians arrive.

War and pestilence.

The Soviet/Russian Navy restores order.

Refugees, on their way to Rastov probably.

Maidan protests, or riots rather.

The children implore “Putin” to help them.

This girl cries “Must we be forced to give up our native language?” then puts the microphone under the nose of an audience member for a response.

Don’t worry, “Putin” won’t let that happen.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. He’s the bad guy.

The Tartars. Life is easy for them now they are protected by the Russians.

Crimeans celebrate Russian takeover.

Grand Finale. “The uniforms of the Russian troops are like angels' wings protecting us.”

Front page of the Metro (Petersburg’s free commuter paper, state-owned of course) the next day. The article inside was headed with a quote from Alexandrov “Our position is clear: Crimea is ours”.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Jurowski Conducts Britten’s “Gay Requiem” in Moscow

I was in Russia this week and heard about a remarkable concert earlier in the year, which doesn’t seem to have registered with the Western press. At the start of April, the London Philharmonic gave a performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Moscow under Vladimir Jurowski, a very high profile civic event linked to the year of cultural collaboration between Britain and Russia, and attended by a good number of high level dignitaries.
It is customary in Russia to give an address before concerts, and on this occasion Jurowski himself introduced the work. One of the points he made, quite emphatically, is that the work is a celebration of love, and specifically of homosexual love. He talks about the fact that Britten and Pears’ relationship had been illegal under British law and about the evils of institutional homophobia.
Given the current political climate in Russia, this was an extraordinarily brave move. A friend of mine who was there says that the VIPs in the audience all sat ashen-faced as Jurowski elaborated his point. Clearly, Jurowski exaggerated the matter; under other circumstances he would probably be unlikely to characterise this as a gay requiem. But his motivations for doing so here are clear.
A review of the concert published soon after (read it here) discussed Jurowski’s opening remarks at length, which is very unusual as critics usually ignore these addresses. The critic, Sergei Medvedev writes:
“Vladimir Jurowski has once again demonstrated not only that he is a great conductor, but also that he refuses to conform. This sets him apart from other well-known Russian conductors and is so important now in our cold spring of 2014, in a country obsessed with searching out its enemies and in the grip of paranoid homophobia.”
I’ll happily second those views. The most distressing aspect of what is happening in Russia now is the fact that so few people are willing to make a public stand of defiance. But Jurowski has, and congratulations to him.
A video of Jurowski’s speech can be found at: The relevant section begins around 7:30. If anybody with a better grasp of Russian than me could translate this section, I’d be most grateful.