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Friday, 22 January, 1999, 20:00 GMT
Bankrupt Bolshoi looks West
When the Bolshoi last came to Britain in 1993 it was panned by critics
When the Bolshoi last came to Britain in 1993 it was panned by critics
By Media and Arts Correspondent Nick Higham

One of the world's most famous opera companies is coming to Britain later this year - for only the second time.

The Bolshoi Opera, with its sister company the Bolshoi Ballet, will be at the London Coliseum for five weeks in July and August.

Once the Bolshoi was a Communist showpiece but in today's Russia it has fallen on hard times. Its productions are regarded as lumbering and old-fashioned, the company desperate for hard currency from the West to stave off bankruptcy.

The company will perform eight ballets and two operas in London
The company will perform eight ballets and two operas in London
The Bolshoi ballet first came to Britain in 1956. It was the company's first trip outside the Soviet Union. Audiences and critics marvelled, and a legend was born.

The opera company's been to Britain only once before - to Scotland in 1990. For Vladimir Vasiliev, the Bolshoi's artistic director, this summer's trip has enormous symbolic significance: he wants the opera's appearance in London to have the same effect on its reputation abroad as the 1956 visit had for the ballet company.

Marc Ermler, the Bolshoi's conductor, says it is still one of the best opera companies in the world. But it is known principally for its productions of Russian classics, not the wider operatic repertoire.

Critics in Moscow say both the opera and ballet companies' productions are often drab. "They are irrationally exchanging old productions for new versions that are not any better," according to Yaroslav Sedov, ballet and opera critic for the weekly magazine Itogi.

The composer Gerald McBurney, an expert on Russian music, says that in the bedlam of modern Russia the country's great opera, ballet and theatre companies cling on to Russian traditions - like the tradition of Russian singing.

The company will perform eight ballets and two operas in London. One of the operas is a two-year old production of Prokofiev's Love of Three Oranges, directed by Sir Peter Ustinov.

Moscow critics say the productions are often drab
Moscow critics say the productions are often drab
But the other is an astonishing museum piece - a production of this opera, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, first staged more than 50 years ago, in 1948.

No Western opera company would keep a production in its repertoire for even half that time. Marc Ermler says the company has often thought of revamping it - but never quite gets round to it.

As for the ballet - when the Bolshoi last came to Britain (to the Albert Hall in London in 1993) it was panned by the critics.

Lilian Hochauser, the promoter who is bringing them to Britain this year was also critical, claiming the company lacked great dancers and that its corps de ballet was not in the same class as the Bolshoi's great St Petersburg rival, the Kirov. Now, she says, they are much improved.

Meanwhile the Bolshoi is struggling financially. Once a Soviet showpiece, it is now starved of the state subsidy it once took for granted and deep in debt.

Like other Russian companies, it is had to give its best singers, dancers and musicians contracts which tie them in to only one or two productions a year, leaving them free to earn real money in the West.

What is more, its splendid Moscow theatre is falling apart. It needs $350m to rebuild.

Vladimir Vasilyev says he believes the money can be found. "I hope and trust the Russian government understands that the Bolshoi is Russia's business card to the world," he says.

He is also planning to launch a Friends of the Bolshoi, modelled on similar schemes in the West. Gerald McBurney says there is money in Russia: Moscow is a rich gangster city and among the "new Russians" who like to flaunt their wealth are a fair share of art and opera snobs.

But they are prepared to pay mainly for certain kinds of things, like gala performances. An artistic institution like the Bolshoi cannot survive simply on the money raised by events like that.

Hence the importance of tours like this summer's visit to London - and, if that is a success, a six-week visit to Covent Garden in 2001.

The profits from this year's tour could help stave off bankruptcy - provided the companies and their stars really are as good as legend has it.

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