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By John Helmer in Moscow

Dodon was the power-mad, menopausal tsar in the opera, Zolotoi Petushok (Le Coq d’Or, Golden Cockerel), by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and he is making his comeback in St. Petersburg. This time the role is being played by Valery Gergiev (image), who usually keeps to the conductor’s podium in the orchestra pit, or in his office as the Mariiinsky Theatre’s administrative and artistic director. Never underestimate the ambition of leading lights of the Russian stage to play tsar, Stalin, or Dodon.

In this tale, Gergiev is behind the attempt to have the federal parliament enact a new law putting the President of Russia — Dmitry Medvedev at the moment – in charge of appointing the heads of Russia’s two grandest opera and ballet houses, Mariinsky in St. Petersburg and Bolshoi in Moscow. Because the houses are state institutions, their administration comes under the supervision of the federal Ministry of Culture. And it’s the Minister of Culture, Alexander Avdeev, whom the proposed law is targeting. Sergiev doesn’t like Avdeev’s criticism of his administrative performance, and wants the new law to free himself of the obligation to report to anyone by the President.

At least, that’s the libretto. But strange to tell, although the proposed statute has already been drafted and passed through the St. Petersburg Duma, ready for introduction to the parliament in Moscow, noone associated with the law wants to explain why it’s necessary, what wrong is rights, and who gains if it is enacted, who loses if the status quo continues. Maestri and primi donni, you understand, aren’t democrats in their line of work, even when they handle large sums of public money.

If the Golden Cockerel is calling out, as he does in the opera – ‘Cock-a-Doodle-doo, You better be on the lookout for you’ – it seems Gergiev isn’t listening.

At the time of the opera’s composition and first production in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov had his doubts that the plot, based on Pushkin’s fairy-tale, would get through Tsar Nicholas II’s censors. And it didn’t – the entire Introduction, Epilogue, and 45 other lines of text were ordered to be cut from the publication and performance versions. In the introduction, the tale of Dodon is introduced by the Astrologer with dripping irony, assuring the audience that what it is about to see isn’t true, but that therein there is “a clue, a good lesson for all of you.” After the plot plays out, Dodon proves he’s a bad listener to warnings, especially from birds and seductive would-be queens; and is pecked to death by the cockerel.
 

When Dodon kills the wise and well-wishing Astrologer, the jumped-up Tsaritsa of Shemakha says something that also didn’t go down well with the real tsar, and was ordered to be cut from the libretto. “That’s the way to do it, don’t coddle them!” sings the tsaritsa. “That’s what serfs were given to us for/If we don’t like them, then flatten them.”

She then turns on Dodon, curses him, and as the cockerel disposes of Dodon, she disappears laughing. The Astrologer returns to tell the audience in the epilogue that he and the tsaritsa were real, but not Dodon, sons, boyars, and generals, who were “only daydreams, pale phantoms, illusions, and nothing more…”

Rimsky-Korsakov died himself in June of 1908; the opera wasn’t played in Moscow until fifteen months later, and then not at the Bolshoi. If you prefer your history of the last tsar and his queen potted with sanctimony, and regurgitated with bathos, stick to Eduard Radzinsky’s novel on the duo. And if it’s a personal comfort you need, there is a candle in every church in Russia which may be lit for the now canonized Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer.

The new plot opened last week when the legislative assembly (duma) of St. Petersburg, chaired by Vadim Tyulpanov (Russian for tulip), voted its approval of a draft law to be submitted to the federal State Duma for enactment. The statute is entitled “On the Peculiarities of the Legal Status of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia and the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg”. After announcing the intention to revise the 2006 statute on the same subject, article 3 of the new law orders: “the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia and the head of the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre shall be appointed and dismissed by the President of the Russian Federation.”

There are also provisions in the draft law which confer property management and income-earning rights to these presidential appointees. The legislative wording is ambiguous, and it isn’t clear what money-spinners they refer to in the theatres’ physical or intellectual properties, or how the new provisions differ from the statutes and regulations in force.

Tyulpanov turns out to be a shrinking violet. The apparent initiator of the change, he refuses to explain why he believes it necessary to legislate to replace the Minister of Culture with the President as the
appointer of the two theatre heads. Tyulpanov referred to a spokesman, Yelizaveta Agamalyan, at a telephone number that isn’t working.

At the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the press office declined to elaborate on the proposed change, or on whether the Bolshoi management is in favour of it. The Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov’s spokesman said the mayor has no view on the matter to air in public, because the theatre is a federal government institution, not a municipal responsibility. The department of culture in the Moscow city government said the same thing.

The city boss in St. Petersburg is Governor Valentina Matvienko. Asked to explain the initiative, and why it is coming from her city, spokesman Dmitry Shabelnikov said he has nothing to say.

But local city deputy, Alexei Kovalyov of the Fair Russia faction, who is also a member of the city Duma committee on culture, explained: “The people behind the draft could be Valery Gergiev, the director of Mariinsky theatre, and Valentina Matviyenko. It is a purely Petersburg initiative, as far as I can see. It could have been expressed by Gergiev, and then backed by Matviyenko. I personally see nothing negative about the bill. The Fair Russia faction voted for it.”

The State Duma committee on culture is biding its time cautiously. When and if the St. Petersburg draft arrives in Moscow, said committee spokesman Olga Pashkovskaya, it will be reviewed by the Committee on Regulations and then ratified by the Duma Council. Only then would the draft be ready for consideration by the Committee on Culture, for reporting to the Duma itself for a first-reading vote. Before it gets that far, the Kremlin and the federal Ministry of Culture will report to the committee deputies the government’s view.

The federal culture ministry says it is surprised. Alexei Shalashov, director of the department of state support for art, folk art and international relations at the ministry, said: “The Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters, as well as the Maly Theatre of Russia [Moscow] and several dozen museums, conservation areas, libraries, educational, scientific and archival institutions are already on the list of especially valuable objects of our cultural heritage…In accordance with this status, most decisions regarding these agencies, including matters of finance, [must be] adopted after consultations with the government.” As for the Tyulpanov law, Shalashov is waiting but not holding his breath. “In order to formulate the position of the ministry as to the initiative of the St. Petersburg deputies, it is necessary to read the draft and understand what is the fundamental difference between the current model and the one proposed.”

Quite so. But in the corridors of the ministry, there isn’t anyone with responsibility who hasn’t already read the proposed law, and formed his view. The talk, which cannot be attributed to anyone by name because it is the consensus of all, is that Tyulpanov is acting as Gergiev’s front-man to push Gergiev into a position where he can spend money on reconstruction of the Mariinsky theatre without having to depend on Avdeev’s permission.

Sex and power may have been what blinded Tsar Dodon. This time, the opera is about money, lots of it.

As with the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Mariinsky has been in reconstruction for a long time. The second, above-ground stage of the Mariinsky rebuilding had been made the object of an international architectural competition, and the announced winner was the design of a French architect, Dominique Perrault. His scheme was abandoned in October 2008, but not before his project had cost a lot of money. In June of 2009, a new scheme was chosen for the design. This time Canadians Diamond & Schmitt got the nod. Their firm has designed many public buildings, including theatres and museums. It says the Mariinsky project is under way.

But the Russian press reports there are court cases charging contractors with shoddy work in the first-stage of the project, the rebuilding of the foundations. That, plus new costing for the second stage of the project, have lifted the state budget estimate for completion to more than half a billion dollars — is more than double the 2007 estimate, and there is diminishing confidence in the timetable for completion, and the quality of the job. Since 2002, when Gergiev first received federal government approval for the new theatre, the budget has risen sixfold.

Not unexpectedly, the federal state auditor, the Accounting Chamber, became interested in where the money has gone; in March of 2009 it reported its findings. These appeared in the Russian press at the time. The reports have been confirmed today by a source at the Chamber. The auditors have judged that there have been miscalculations and misappropriations. They have also calculated that the completion of the reconstruction will be about $581 million; that is, if resettlement costs for St. Petersburg residents displaced by the project but not yet compensated, are not counted. Altogether, the auditors believe the new Mariinsky is headed for the distinction of becoming the most expensive opera house in the world.

Gergiev’s response to the press leaks a year ago was to announce that he favoured a combination of magnificence and simplicity to meet the budget requirements. He also reportedly visited Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to lobby for what a Moscow newspaper said was more personal control over both.

That was in March 2009. When Gergiev was asked this week to explain how he views the proposed legislation on command at the theatre, and what has happened to the stage-2 reconstruction, his press officer suggested that the maestro sticks to tunes, not words. “We do not give comments,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman for the Mariinsky Theatre, Oksana Tokranova, was asked how the theatre itself interprets the meaning and purpose of last week’s draft law. She replied: “The official comment of the theater on the [St. Petersburg] deputies’ initiative is not ready yet.”

Last week, almost immediately after Tyulpanov pushed his law through the city legislature, Culture Minister Avdeev arrived on the scene. For his inspection of the Mariinsky site, he was accompanied by Yury Mityurev, the chief architect of St. Petersburg; ministry aides; and Gergiev. The official media version of the inspection reported that “Alexander Avdeev generally endorsed the decisions taken, while expressing a number of suggestions and comments.”

The unofficial version is that the Maestro is so hostile to the Minister and his suggestions – a sentiment heartily reciprocated — that Gergiev’s only way out has to be a wave of the magic wand. Gergiev is hoping Medvedev will arrange for swift enactment to put Gergiev beyond Avdeev’s reach. But it is too soon to ring the curtain down on this tale. It is already clear the President isn’t as potent as the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. Medvedev has so far failed to respond to questions, or to commit himself on who is in charge at the Mariinsky.

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