Peter Groves is one of my instructing solicitors. He is also my friend. Like me he specializes in intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trade marks, registered and unregistered designs and the like). Like me he has a life outside the law. Whereas I exercise with pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe he runs. His practice takes him to Russia from time to time. Last Friday he was at the Bolshoi where he saw Spartacus. At my request he reviewed the performance. He tells me that it is his first ballet review. I do hope that it is not his last because I find it very interesting.
"I have to admit to being only an occasional ballet-goer, but a full-time music lover: so when my old friend Victor suggested that on my next flying visit (Friday evening to Sunday evening) to Moscow we might attend a performance of Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theatre it was the venue rather than the spectacle or the music that attracted me. Surely Khatchaturian was the worst sort of Soviet composer, kowtowing to party diktat, a pygmy beside Shostakovich: I had somehow inadvertently forgotten The Onedin Line (though I deliberately, for Shostakovich’s sake, put the theme music to Midsomer Murders out of mind).
Actually I find I did Khatchaturian a great disservice. Although as secretary of the Composers’ Union he was an establishment figure, he had more than his fair share of criticism, being denounced along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others as ‘formalist’. The more I visit Moscow, and the more I learn about Russian history, the more I realise that under whatever political system they lived most people just tried to get on with their lives, doing the best job they could under the circumstances. Put like that, was life here ever much different?
Reasoning that Mr Putin’s Ukrainian adventures meant that there would probably be no more affordable opportunity to go to the Bolshoi I agreed to the suggestion. The rouble has recently dipped below one penny, about half the rate I am accustomed to paying, so the estimated 12,000 roubles that a ticket agency would charge, though certainly substantial, was not prohibitive, and in the end it came out at a bit more than half that anyway. I could have put up with the worst excesses of officially approved Soviet music and ballet for the pleasure of a few hours in such an iconic building.
I have enjoyed several evenings out in Moscow with Victor in the past, and there was a precedent for his announcement that our tickets were not actually for adjacent seats. He gave me the ticket for the box in the dress circle, or “beletage”, a few doors along from the former Imperial (now, I was told, Putin’s) box, keeping for himself the seat in the highest balcony. Then we repaired to the buffet - Russian being a language of borrowed words - and there, naturally, we drank shampanskoye (Russian champagne) which is more than just a borrowed word. To be precise, it was Abrau-Durso, a protected geographical indication, Victor told me, adding as he often does when we discuss intellectual property, that he had registered it himself. And very pleasant it was, though perhaps not the best form of refreshment to take after a long day travelling with an evening’s ballet to come.
Only one of the eight seats in the box was occupied when I took mine. That by a gentleman with suspiciously dark glasses who insisted I join him in the front row of three chairs. My assigned back-row chair was of a height more usually associated with bars, permitting a clear view over the other people in the box. His English being on a par with my Russian («Я профессор Российской академии правосудия»), it was with some difficulty that I ascertained that he was from Moldova. He was in town for a conference, and his delegate badge told me that it was a gathering of paediatricians. (Only as I write several days later do I realise that the Russian word for ‘doctor’, врач , is part of my limited vocabulary). Inevitably a party of three with tickets entitling them to the front seats then arrived: my new Moldovan friend had no better right to sit in one of them than I did. But the newcomers were very nice about it, and one of them spoke pretty good English, which was a bonus: I had apprehended an evening like one I spent at a concert at the Moscow Conservatory a few years ago, where a couple of ladies in the next seats valiantly tried to engage me in conversation.
The neo-classical Bolshoi theatre was restored to its former Imperial glory (with the addition of lifts, another loan-word) in 2011. It displays such opulence as to make the events of 1917 seem not just understandable but rather inevitable. The enormous curtains, for example, could have been woven from gold thread. And when they opened they revealed the most enormous stage, which seemed to go back for a hundred yards, in front of which a huge orchestra pit offered plenty of room for the 70-piece orchestra (two harps) and eventually, after Spartacus had met his gory end, even a choir.
Which makes me think: if Khatchaturian’s purpose in choosing the story was to satisfy Soviet artistic policy requirements, why this one? Oh, revolting slaves casting off their chains, that much makes sense. Spartacus has the Roman imperialists on the back foot, but his magnanimity towards Crassus backfires. Ending with the proletarian hero impaled on the imperialists’ spears struck me as off-message.Rodkin, Lantratov, Nikulina and Alexandrova - Peter saw some of the Bolshoi's best artists. I am very jealous of him. I have yet to visit Russia but I have seen Spartacus on HDTV (see Spartacus - streamed live to Wakefield 21 Oct 2013). Nikulina danced Phrygia in that performance and to the best of my recollection she danced it very well.
Grigorovich’s choreography dates from 1968, and this was the 307th performance of that production:. Other reviews I have read (such as this one of the same production, and most of the same soloists, from the New York Times, or this from the New York Observer, describing the production as “ghastly”) suggest that it shows. I might best describe a lot of it as clunky, although the principals - Denis Rodkin as Spartacus, Vladislav Lantratov as Crassus, Anna Nikulina as Phrygia and Maria Alexandrova as Aegina - seemed excellent and performed some extraordinary moves."