SAINT PETERSBURG — Russia's legendary Mariinsky Theatre has surprised audiences with a new production of a classic opera that draws parallels between a ruthless 16th century ruler and Russia's current regime.
At one point in the new production of "Boris Godunov" by Modest Mussorgsky the stage at the Saint Petersburg theatre is swarmed by riot police and protesters brandishing slogans, in a clear reference to the street demonstrtations against Vladimir Putin's rule.
The 19th century opera -- based on the play by national poet Alexander Pushkin -- chronicles the rise and fall of Tsar Boris Godunov, who ascended to the throne at the turn of the 16th century after murdering the rightful heir.
The plot, which focuses on the rift between the tsar and his own people, caused the opera to be censored multiple times by the imperial authorities and then in the Soviet Union.
It has now been put on by British director Graham Vick at the Mariinsky Theatre, premiering Friday evening as part of the Stars of the White Nights festival.
It is extremely rare for major Russian opera houses to make contemporary political references in their productions.
The starkest reference to present-day Russia comes in the uniforms of riot police, or OMON, who protect Tsar Godunov and his family from a throng of angry fist-shaking citizens.
"None of the protesters expected that the latest trends of Russian Twitter would be voiced on the conservative opera stage," the Izvestia daily wrote Monday, saying the production "delivers a swinging blow."
While many of the set details allude to the late Soviet perestroika years, when Russia was hit hard by economic crises and mass rallies, elements like a monk with a laptop or the lavish icon backdrop are more typical of Vladimir Putin's era of Internet and growing power of the Orthodox Church.
The Mariinsky's internationally renowned music director Valery Gergiev is known as a Putin supporter and was one of the celebrities who recorded a promotional clip for his presidential campaign this winter.
Keeping the details of the Mariinsky's production under wraps until the last minute, Gergiev focused on its artistic merits in his latest remarks, hinting ever so slightly that Godunov's atrocities are mirrored in modern Russia.
"I don't think that the opera world so much needs to do (a news reporter's) work," the maestro said at last week's press conference, "but that can happen in the hands of a strong director or artist."
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