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'Back in 1990, it wasn't that difficult to find a niche for a new opera theater," says Dmitry Bertman, the founder and artistic director of the Helikon Opera Theater, speaking from his Moscow home on the eve of the popular company's third visit to Israel. This week and next, the Helicon Opera will be hosted by the Israeli Opera as it presents two of the most important works in the Russian repertoire: Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk.
"In those days, opera theaters in Moscow were few and, with all due respect, their approach to the genre was rather archaic. At Helikon, however, audiences could suddenly see Tatiana (from Tchaikovsky's classic Onegin) performed by a beautiful actress who was the same age as the heroine she portrayed."
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The young theater attracted attention and success with its very first production - a strikingly staged rendition of Leoncavallo's Pagliaci.
"We invented an array of unusual stage solutions, while the actors' strongly felt performances supported the extravagant stage tricks."
At the beginning, Helicon, with its limited resources, built its repertoire on rarely performed or unknown modern operas which did not need a huge cast. Helicon was the first in Russia to present such 20th-century masterpieces as Berg's Lulu or Janacek's Macropoulos Case. Today, with the company standing on steadier ground as a state-supported musical institution with its own home, choir and orchestra, it still offers audiences musical rarities that can't be seen anywhere, as well as familiar pieces in unusual renditions. Helicon performs on two stages and tours intensively both at home and abroad.
Lady MacBeth from Mtzensk, presented in Shostakovitch's first version, won four of Russia's prestigious Golden Mask awards. The opera is based on a short novel by Nikolai Leskov about a young woman in the heart of provincial Russia who kills her old merchant husband so as to be with her young lover.
"There's no folklore or 'dirty Russia' here, but rather a sensation of stopped time. The entire story transpires in a cellar, with the communication pipes of life running along the walls. People never come to such places, and terrible things happen there," explains the director.
The Tel Aviv performance of Boris Godunov, the opera based on Pushkin's epic poem about the 16th century czar who ruled from 1598 to 1605, will actually be a premiere, says Bertman. "In Moscow, we performed it only three times, then packed up the scenery and sent it to Israel. For me, this is the story of a man who, despite the fact that he rose to power through murder and intrigue, could have become an ideal czar. Yet he failed because he was far too honest, which is unacceptable in Russia.
"Although the costumes belong to the historical epoch, in the costumes of the choir members one can see the entire history of Russia. The show is full of political connotations, and spectators can easily read them."
Helicon Opera presents both pieces at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center between December 5 and 14, with one show (Boris Godunov) at Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma on December 11). Surtitles in Hebrew and English.