As we hurtle towards October and the centenary of the Russian Revolution, 18 organisations in Wales have banded together in a show of artistic muscle to mark the anniversary. There were strong links between South Wales and the early years of the Soviet Union. The South Wales Socialist Society, itself growing from the Miners Reform Movement, enthusiastically supported the October Revolution and the mining village of Maerdy in the Rhondda flew the red flag outside the pit and was referred to as “Little Moscow”. Lenin even entered into correspondence with those in Wales attempting to found the first UK-wide Communist Party.

R17 – or Russia 17 – is the Welsh commemoration of the Russian Revolution, with an impressive line-up of opera, ballet, theatre and concerts to satisfy the most voracious Russophile. The festival’s patron and artistic director is the Mariinsky Theatre’s Valery Gergiev. "As head of one of the great icons of Russian culture, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg,” he explains, “I am touched that the major cultural institutions of Wales are joining together to celebrate the artistic riches of my country, which have inspired so many. The Centenary of the Russian Revolution is a time for reflection and the arts provide an ideal vehicle to explore this momentous historical event.”

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky
The Mariinsky is represented by the Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble, conducted by Gergiev in a programme of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky along with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, a string orchestra arrangement of his searing Eighth String Quartet. The quartet, composed in 1960 and dedicated "to the victims of fascism and the war", is also given in its usual form by the Mavron Quartet. Other Russian visitors include the St Petersburg Symphony under Alexander Dmitriev in a concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Second Piano Concerto with soloist John Lill.

Central to the festival is Welsh National Opera’s autumn season which, as artistic director David Pountney explains, explores different aspects of Russian history: “a substantial operatic season of Russian works not dealing specifically with the revolution, but more opening out to a broader retrospective of Russia’s extraordinary cultural legacy.” The season is led by a revival of Pountney’s own production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, an opera which delves right back to the 17th century when Russia was in the grip of religious fanatics and ambitious politicians in the face of reforms. The plot concerns the doomed rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky and ends with the self-immolation of the Old Believers.

Poster for <i>From the House of the Dead</i>
Poster for From the House of the Dead
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is much more familiar fare. Based on Pushkin’s novella – itself an intrinsic part of any Russian’s education – the opera is one of the best-loved in the repertory. Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, who owes her surname to her Ukranian Grandfather who came to Wales during the Second World War, leads the cast as Tatyana, the shy teenager who falls hopelessly for her aloof neighbour, Onegin, and declares her love in a passionate letter.

WNO’s third opera is not by a Russian composer, but deals with Russian history. Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is set in a Siberian prison camp during a time of political oppression. With a libretto on the semi-autobiographical novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, each of the inmates recounts his reasons for being there. An injured eagle which the prisoners nurse back to health becomes a symbol of freedom and hope for Russia itself.

The Orchestra of WNO is conducted by music director Tomáš Hanus in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 in C major, composed during war-torn Leningrad in 1941, where the composer served as a firefighter. Click here to read a full history of the Leningrad Symphony in our Russia Focus. Shostakovich composed a number of works to commemorate the revolution. His Symphony no. 12 in D minor is subtitled The Year 1917 was composed in 1961. Unlike his Eleventh, which depicts the events of 1905 in programmatic detail, the Twelfth offers more of a broad brush approach, mostly concerning Lenin. The second movement is entitled “Razliv”, the village where Lenin went into hiding, while “Aurora” in the third movement refers to the cruiser on the River Neva from which the shot was fired to signal the Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performs the symphony under Thomas Søndergård, who also includes Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry, a prime example of Soviet futurist music, the orchestra depicting a noisy factory at full stretch.

Parade was a creation for the Ballets Russes in 1917, a grand collaboration between choreographer Leonide Massine, writer Jean Cocteau, composer Erik Satie and designer Pablo Picasso. Marc Rees and the National Dance Company of Wales combine for this event where you join protesters and listen to speeches before travelling through an art-installation where you are immersed in a pair of dance works, a new commission by Marcos Morau and Parade itself, choreographed by Caroline Finn. Marc Rees explains that “the original creative team behind Parade were imprisoned for being cultural anarchists and it sparked a riot. I want to embody their pioneering spirit and subvert it further by giving it a surreal dystopian backdrop but with a contemporary Welsh twist.”

Further Russian works appear courtesy of The Hallé (Mussorgsky’s popular Pictures at an Exhibition) and the Cardiff Philharmonic. There is theatre too – a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov is also represented in Mid Wales Opera’s offering – William Walton’s one act opera, The Bear, based on the Russian’s play. The widow Popova is confronted by Smirnov, one of her husband’s creditors. Matters get heated – the pair pointing pistols at each other – but love springs a surprise. Mid Wales Opera tours this chamber opera to seven different venues.

Click here to see full listings for R17.


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