“Master and Margarita”
Bolshoi Theatre (New Stage)
October 29, 2023 (matinee)
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2023 by Ilona Landgraf
I was skeptical whether Edward Clug was the right choice to tackle Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita”. A Russian choreographer seemed better equipped to adapt this landmark of Soviet literature for the ballet stage than a Romanian-born working in Maribor, Slovenia. Two years after its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre, I was able to watch Clug’s “Master and Margarita” – and my reservations were proven thoroughly wrong. It’s a fabulous blend of entertainment and food for thought, brimful of metaphors and allusions. Yuri Possokhov, Clug’s Russian colleague, currently preparing a new piece for the Bolshoi, is full of appreciation for “Master and Margarita” as well. I met him at another performance where he told me that Clug understands the Russian soul perfectly well.
Interestingly, Clug, together with Christian Spuck (then artistic director of Zurich Ballet) intended to stage “Master and Margarita” in Zurich in 2015, but their plan was thwarted when the theater’s research revealed that ticket sales would be uncertain because the Zurich audience wasn’t familiar with Bulgakov’s novel. Destiny brought the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Makhar Vaziev to the scene who decided to stage the piece in Moscow.
A lifetime could be spent exploring Bulgakov’s political and social satire and the biblical questions raised by the novel. In short “The Master and Margarita” (published only after Bulgakov’s death in 1940, first in an edited serial form in 1966/67 and uncensored in 1973) intertwines two plots: (1) the mayhem caused by the Satan (alias Professor Woland) and his entourage when visiting Moscow in the 1930s, and (2) the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem during Pontius Pilate’s governance. The connecting link is the Master, a Muscovite author (and Bulgakov’s alter ego) whose latest manuscript tells the Jerusalem plot. Margarita is the woman who loves him and – unlike Moscow’s critics – his work.
Clug and his artistic team pruned and disentangled this complex story (which to know before watching the performance is nevertheless advisable), condensing it into a witty two-acter. Some omissions include: Nikolai Ivanovich’s involuntary transformation into a hog, the variety theater director Likhodeyev’s likewise involuntary trip to Yalta, his house-manager’s transformation into a vampire, and some absurd events at the Commission on Spectacles and Entertainment of the Lighter Type (including the disembodiment of the chairman and unstoppable chanting of the forcibly singing staff). Clug circumvented political aspects and religious readings (the late Russian professor Vladimir Zaznobin outlined, for example, that Bulgakov questioned the verisimilitude of Jesus’s crucifixion), dropping the Jerusalem plot altogether. He kept, however, the figure of Pontius Pilate (Alexander Vodopetov) who’s not a living human, but a stone sculpture chiseled by the Master (Artem Ovcharenko). A stroke of genius, which retains the link to the ancient world and the Roman Empire while at the same time highlighting that this Pilate is the Master’s creation. After the Master’s death, Pilate takes hold of the manuscript and descends back into history. Only a marble tombstone slab decorated with the crumpled fabric of his trenchcoat remains.
The way of the cross and the crucifixion were re-attributed to the Master who’s pinned to the cross (= the bench) by three literature critics, because of the unacceptable manuscript he submitted. Appropriately enough, coming right from the funeral procession of Berlioz (Evgeny Triposkiadis), the head of the writers’ union, the crucifiers are still wearing black (costumes by Leo Kulaš).
Though unusual at first sight, Marco Japeli’s set design – an empty swimming pool – proves a splendid idea. Depending on the scene, the thirteen doors surrounding it lead to a toilet, a bathroom, a phone booth, the kitchen of the writers’ union’s home base, and so on. Several times the doors are locked, allowing no escape, but on other occasions they prevent intrusion into a secluded space. Additional catacomb-like doors inside the pool itself belong to storage space for furniture or corpses. A vaulted ceiling evokes the charm of a historic bathhouse. Lit turquoise, the ceiling suddenly spans the auditorium of Likhodeyev’s variety theater, where Woland (Vladislav Lantratov) and his gang perform their black magic, beheading the head of ceremonies Bengalsky (Gennady Yanin) – and casting a spell over their gullible audience. When Margarita (Ekaterina Krysanova) and the band of witches (who, unlike in the novel, are all clones of Margarita) fly to the Blockula island – or rather their chiffon dresses waft through the air – the ceiling seems non-existent at all.
Among the multiple locations that the pool transforms into are: the Master’s home, the psychiatric clinic of Professor Stravinsky (portrayed by Nikita Elikarov as a hilarious caricature of a couch doctor), and the late Berlioz’s flat (now occupied by Woland and his consorts), or the afterlife “love nest” of the Master and Margarita where they enjoy deviled eggs. The pool turns into the Patriarch’s Pond – at which Woland intrudes into the discussion of Berlioz and the young poet Bezdomny (Klim Efimov) like an insidious spirit of discord. Besides, the encounter ends badly. As predicted by Woland, Berlioz gets decapitated by a tram, because he slipped on the oil spilled by Annushka (Olga Vdovkina). The pool also serves as the Moskva River, into which Bezdomny jumps in a vain attempt to chase Woland. More water was (symbolically) in play when a steaming bathtub alchemized Margarita into Woland’s queen. It would have been a hit, if the pool had been flooded for real to re-enact how Margarita revenged the critic Latunsky’s damning review of the Master’s manuscript in the novel (in which she swamps Latunsky’s posh flat), but instead Latunsky (Kamil Yangurazov) got a beating.
Though the goings-on are turbulent and require a fast-paced narration, smooth scene transitions and extended pas de deux provide calm. That Clug has a knack for creating weird characters is already known from his “Peer Gynt”. “Master and Margarita” is a treasure trove of bizarre figures too, for which Clug again created trenchant movements. My favorite was Lantratov’s Woland – an incalculable mastermind, sleek, lightening sharp, and a wizard of acrobatic stunts (his black magic show at the variety theater was spectacular). As for his henchman Behemoth (the black cat), Georgy Gusev lolled and stretched shrewdly, leaving no doubt that he could quick-change into human nature (what he does in the book). His fellow, the bowler-hatted Azazello (Alexander Smolyaninov), gave Berlioz’s heir Poplavsky (Grigory Chapaev) such a punchy welcome, that Poplavsky readily renounced any claims on Berlioz’s flat. The dark knight Korovyev, also known as Fagot, (Egor Gerashchenko) made me instantly think of the Fagot of Sergey Desnitsky’s film adaption of “Master and Margarita”. His checkered suit and the cap were unmissable. As the redheaded succubus Hella, Anastasia Denisova strutted lasciviously on pointe shoes, writhing her sexy curves.
As in the novel, Margarita’s ordeal as Satan’s queen didn’t stain her soul, but liberated her. She fearlessly pushed the gate to Woland’s dark realm open by presiding over the demonic ball. Its guests shared one thing in common – they all had blood on their hands. Thanks to Margarita, at least one of them – Frieda (Vera Borisenkova) – was pardoned. Though the hero of the story, Ovcharenko’s Master was (as intended by Bulgakov) an unflashy, pensive man, suffering from his art, but also being freed by it.
Clug chose music by Alfred Schnittke and Milko Lazar (instead of – as originally planned – Shostakovich) which combines eerie, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes burlesque passages. I especially liked the moment when the shriek of a high-pitched violin transitioned into the whistle of a kettle (boiling the water for the tea, the Master and his other alter ego, the young poet Bezdomny, had at their confidential talk). Anton Grishanin and the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre made sure that the sound was mesmerizing.
|Links:||Website of the Bolshoi Theatre|
|Ticket to the Bolshoi – Master and Margarita (video)|
|Photos:||1.||Artem Ovcharenko (Master) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|2.||Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|3.||Anastasia Denisova (Hella), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023|
|4.||Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland) and Evgeny Triposkiadis (Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023|
|5.|| Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland) and Anastasia Denisova (Hella), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|6.||Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|7.||Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita) and Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023|
|8.|| Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita) and ensemble, “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|9.||Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita) and ensemble, “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023|
|10.||Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023|
|11.||Vladislav Lantratov (Professor Woland) and Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|12.||Ekaterina Krysanova (Margarita), “Master and Margarita” by Edward Clug, Bolshoi Ballet 2023
|all photos © Bolshoi Ballet / Batyr Anadurdiev|