Letter from St Petersburg

Along with all other passengers, I had to take off my shoes before boarding the CSA flight from St Petersburg to Prague – and then on directly to Thessaloniki. Security at St Petersburg’s airport at Pulkovo has been boosted significantly over the last few months. Note that I had been previously warned: Any person entering the terminals at Pulkovo is immediately subject to officers’ scrutiny. «You will not only have to pass through metal detectors but they will also search you or even ask to raise the lower part of your trouser leg,» well-wishers alerted me. «At least those actions give me more confidence that the flight will be safe,» Larisa Turea, a drama critic from Moldova who boarded the same plane as me whispered in my ear; she had just participated in the 14th International Theater Festival in the former Leningrad, known as the festivities at the «Baltic House.» And a most remarkable theater festival it has been indeed. First of all, it confirmed my suspicions that we are currently living in an age of postmodern perversity, served up by a most innovative generation of directors interested more in egoistical exhibitionism than textual exploration. (To open a parenthesis: Three days later, last Friday, to be precise, the State Theater of Northern Greece opened its season with a Dimitris Koromilas piece – a kind of Greek vaudeville – dating back to 1889. In that case, I missed the fact that there are hardly any theater directors in the Greek north determined to mess around with our classics. And Andreas Voutsinas is certainly one of them.) Back to St Petersburg, where among a plethora of productions, there were also three freewheeling Shakespeare plays (an «Othello,» a «Hamlet,» and a «Macbeth»), all visually translated by Lithuanian-born director Eimuntas Nekrosius, a big star on the festival circuit, into dazzling theatrical terms.  Also, there was «The Month of Love» – after Ivan Turgenev’s «A Month in the Country» – full of gratuitously whimsical touches, done with cartoonish vulgarity by the Ukranian enfant terrible Andrei Zoldhak. Rejecting every notion of good old Russian naturalism, Zoldak produced a four-hour-long work that I cordially disliked. The northern capital of Russia, St Petersburg – also nicknamed the «Venice of the North» – still is its cultural, historical and architectural window onto Europe. Founded by Peter the Great some 300 years ago, it acted as the capital of Russia for more than 200 years (until 1917). During the German army’s siege in 1941, nearly a million people died in what was then Leningrad. Today, Russia is a different place, slowly emerging from the communist nightmare and embracing the benefits of a Westernized mixed economy. However, for most, with average salaries not much higher than 200 euros a month, it is still a daily struggle to survive. All the same, the theaters I visited were always packed and local admirers still offer flowers to the artists on stage. All right, prices may be a third lower than in the West, but that scarcely compensates. Nowadays, Greece boasts a most illustrious address in St Petersburg. The Greek Consulate-General may be badly squashed into three tiny rooms, yet our «Greek soil» lies at the very heart of the historic business and shopping district of the city. Located on the fourth floor of the Grand Hotel Europe, the first five-star hotel in Russia, with roots that go back to the 1820s, the building has accommodated celebrities such as Tchaikovsky, Turgenev, Anna Pavlova, and Maxim Gorky. It is this place that Dimitris Anninos – the acting consul-general of Greece – calls home, until he is transferred to Shanghai later this year. Within walking distance of the Hermitage, Russian museums and the Mussorgsky State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, the consulate has issued some 20,000 Greek visas during the last 12 months. The nearby Hermitage, once home to Catherine the Great and backdrop to the start of the Russian Revolution, is the museum to die to see in this vastest country of our globe. Just to name one of its attractions, the Hermitage probably owns the best collection of Rembrandts in the world. As for the Kirov Theater, which has reverted to its pre-revolutionary name, the Mariinsky, its current reputation rests on the tutus and rhinestone tiaras of its 19th century repertory of orthodox ballets. Some days ago, on October 7, the 221st opera season started at the Mariinsky Theater with a performance of Mikhail Glinka’s «A Life for the Tsar.» This opera opens every season, according to a century-long tradition. Only in the Soviet period, when royalty was frowned upon, did they rename the opera the more democratic «Ivan Susanin.» However, two days later (last Saturday, that is) I saw a brilliant opera performance at another venue: the Thessaloniki Concert Hall. Staged by Renate Scotto, Gaetano Donizetti’s version of Walter Scott’s novel «Lucia di Lammermoor» was one of the best musical performances the city has ever seen and heard. Elena Mosuc’s devastatingly accurate voice in the title part was a wonder. The St Petersburg modern theater experience was a fantastic one. Yet for me it also symbolized a disturbing European trend that Greece has – thank God – largely escaped: one where the director is an indisputable ruler and classic texts are pieces of clay to be shaped to his often puerile desires.