Master i Margarita - Saint-Petersburg

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In 2006, the British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, known from Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and many other popular musicals, kept us in suspense for a while with what he considered to be the most ambitious project of his career: a musical based on The Master and Margarita. Incidentally, this news item was the very first article ever published on this website on August 15, 2006. Only one year later, it would become clear that this project would never be realised.

In the spring of 2014, the Russian production company Makers Lab and the Music Hall theatre in Saint-Petersburg announced with barely concealed pride in a press release that they had joined forces to realize what Andrew Lloyd Webber never had achieved: the creation of a musical based on The Master and Margarita. It was presented as «an international project which unites the best creative resources of Russia and Europe», and was premiered at the Music Hall in Saint-Petersburg on September 18, 2014.

Attentive readers who may suspect some megalomania behind it, are totally right. According to the announcement, the audience could expect «a magical extravagant three-dimensional scenery, fantastic costumes and modern dance». The production company Triiks Media from Saint Petersburg developed a new technology of three-dimensional viewing for the musical, by which the public would no longer need stereo glasses.

The purists of Russian literature were reassured though, because they would not be overwhelmed by technology only. Also in terms of content they would be generously served, since the musical would guide the spectators «through the maze of human passions and unveil the hidden meaning of the great novel».

6, 6, 66, 66, 666

The musical director of the project was the Italian pianist and conductor Fabio Mastrangelo, who has been working in Russia for many years. The director was Timofey Zhalnin, assisted by Andrey Noskov and Sofya Sirakanyan. For the rest, the organisors used the sequence 6, 6, 66, 66, 666 to characterise the musical - a diabolical series of numbers which stood for 6 composers, 6 librettists, 66 actors, 66 sets and 666 costumes. To complete the list, we should mention one illusionist - Maksim Kretov and one choreographer - Dmitry Pimonov.

Originally, the leading actors of the musical would have been Anton Avdeev and Nicholas Timokhin (both for the role of the master), Ivan Ozhogin (as Woland), Vera Sveshnikova (Margarita) and Larisa Lusta (Hella). However, on August 22, less than a month before the premiere, Svesjnikova announced that, «for various reasons and circumstances», sha would no longer be part of the project. She was replaced by Natalya Martynov. And two weeks before the premiere, Larisa Lusta also said that she stopped her cooperation. She was replaced by Maria Lagatskaya and actress Anna Kovalchuk. Yes, the same Anna Kovalchuk who played the role of Margarita in the television series Master i Margarita, directed by Vladimir Bortko, of which you can find an English subtitled version in our webshop.

Literary talent in the wake of his «grandfather»

Among the list of the contributors to this production, we also find the name of Sergey Shilovsky, someone who is known by the regular visitors of this website as the man who cashes the copyright money for all adaptations and translations of the works of Bulgakov. Many publishers and translators have very bad experiences with Shilovsky and some big foreign publishing houses even refuse to further negotiate with him. In addition to the high tariffs he is asking, he annoys many adaptors with his attempts to get involved in the creative processes of the productions, without being bothered by his lack of talent. Sometimes he tries to have an influence in the selection of the actors or simply to get his name on the credits as a «consultant». He pretends doing this from his «concern to maintain the integrity of the cultural heritage of Bulgakov». This concern, however, often disappears like snow in the sun when the amount of money offered is high enough. Shilovsky is responsible for the fact that Yuri Kara's film from 1994 could only be watched in the Russian cinemas after 17 years.

Shilovsky is the grandson of Elena Sergeevna and Yevgeny Shilovsky, the high military to whom Elena Sergeevna was married when she met Bulgakov. So he's far from a blood relative of the author, yet he continues to call himself invariably and unabashedly внук Михаила Булгакова (vnuk Mikhaila Bulgakova) or the grandson of Mikhail Bulgakov. Many people are offended by this, but now, with this musical, he goes even one step further. In the press texts his name has suddenly been changed into Sergey Bulgakov-Shilovsky. This was one bridge too far some Russian press people, so he was soon nicknamed the «son of Lieutenant Schmidt». [1]

With this musical, Shilovsky finally succeeded to get his name on the credits of a prestigious adaptation of The Master and Margarita, and not just as a consultant. No, Bulgakov verily appeared to have descended his literary talent over his self-proclaimed grandson, since he is mentioned as one of the six librettists of the musical. So, the lovers of Bulgakov shalt not fear, for «the integrity of the cultural heritage of Bulgakov» is maintained. Incidentally, it may be questioned if Shilovsky even wrote one word of the libretto himself, because, in an interview published on the day of the premiere on the news portal Nevskie Novosti, he toned down his own role quite severely. He said that the other five librettists had sent him their texts and that he had «corrected» them.

A «royal» composer

On some Russian internet forums we could read hilarious reactions on how the musical was presented. Especially the gaudy pictures on the posters were mocked and taunted, but also Andrey Noskov, one of the directors, Irina Afanasieva, one of the librettists, and Olga Tomaz, one of the composers were frequently mangled by bloggers and forum members. People doubted whether Noskov had got enough body to lead a project of this size, while Afanasieva was mainly commented because of «her remarkable biography». Many bloggers also doubted whether she had sufficient intellectual capacity to read The Master and Margarita, let alone to understand it, let alone to write a libretto for it.

The third object of ridicule from bloggers was composer Olga Tomaz. In the press documents of the musical she was rather pompously presented as «the composer of Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain». Unfortunately for her though, the members of MDNP.ru, a Russian internet forum for musical lovers, had scoured the internet to find more informaton about her and reported cheerfully: «Google does not know Olga Tomaz».

So we did some further searching for royal connections by ourselves and we found that Tomaz works as a resident composer for a British charity organisation called Cruse Bereavement Care, an institution which guides people through grieving processes. Tomaz has dedicated some of her compositions to the royal house. In 2009, she had the opportunity to shake the British Queen's hand for a second and to offer her a CD with her compositions at a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of Cruse. That's how far the royal connections of Olga Tomaz go.

And... did «the hidden meaning of the great novel» get «unveiled»?

Needless to say that, after the above, the musical has not really unveiled «the hidden meaning of a great novel». But I guess no one would have expected this. The link between the musical and the novel lies in the names of the characters, not in the story. Or have you read somewhere in the novel that «Woland loved Hella. But then he fell in love with Margarita», as actress Maria Lagatskaya explained after the premiere?

The story of the musical did not begin at the Patriarch's Ponds, but in hell, against a background of a 3D landscape with fiery flames. It's the place where Woland gathers his entourage to go to Moscow to raise hell. According to the Rosisskaya Gazeta, Woland looks like «a traditional villain from a Disney movie» in his black leather outfit and with his long hair tied in a ponytail. The local TV station Piter TV talked about «a mixture of a Disney movie and a lingerie store», and concluded that «Bulgakov must have turned in his grave». A nice idea, admittedly, was to make chervontsi fluttering down from the ceiling of the theatre, and to invite the audience to exchange them during the break for a sturgeon of first freshness. Overall, the reviewers agreed that there were quite some spectacular effects, but that the artists, the sets, the music and the effects did not form a whole.

About the music we really can not tell you anything good. Anton Avdeev, who plays the role of the master, claims that the music is so good that every song could be a hit, but it seemed as if the composers wanted to bring only boring and predictable vocals on stage. The only song with a little soul in it, was the short tune Варьете (Variété). But that was just a remake of the song La Matchiche - also known as La Sorella - which was already presented in 1905 in the Parisian music-hall La Scala by the then very popular singer Félix Mayol.

One of the indications of the level of the show is the fact that, the day after the premiere, the media were timidly silent about anything which matters in a musical - the music, the singing and acting, the choreography -, and that they paid more attention to the ugly statue of The Master and Margarita, made by sculptor Gregory Pototsky, which was unveiled on the occasion of the premiere by the notorious grandson of Elena Sergeevna and Yevgeny Shilovsky.

Producer Irina Afanasjeva said that the lyrics of the musical have already been translated into English, and that the first songs have already been recorded in English with the purpose of an international breakthrough. The question is whether, apart from the visual effects, this spectacle has got the qualities for it. In St. Petersburg, all performances were sold out, but according to the portal Fontanka.ru this was only the result of a cleverly inflated hype. «Go and have a look», they wrote, «but forget about Bulgakov», and they might just be right. It's like watching an entire evening to the Eurovision Song Contest, but all the time seeing the same (Finnish) group and hearing the same (Moldovan) song. Some people like to do that, but I'm not one of them.

In 2006, the British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he would stop trying to make a musical of The Master and Margarita. By doing so, he has shown more respect for the integrity of the cultural heritage of Bulgakov than the grandson of Elena Sergeevna and Yevgeny Shilovsky.

[1] The Children of Lieutenant Schmidt is a fictional society of swindlers which appeared in the 1931 satirical novel The Golden Calf written by Ilya Ilf (1897-1937) and Yevgeny Petrov (1903-1942).

The members of this organisation pose as children of Lieutenant Schmidt, a hero of the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Golden Calf is set in Russia in the 1920s, and its premise is that at the time, numerous fake relatives of Karl Marx, Prince Kropotkin and other revolutionary figures roamed the country, tricking gullible Soviet officials into giving them money. Their numbers grow, and to prevent any unlucky chance of spoiling each other's attempts, they «unionized», with Schmidt's Children being the most difficult to organize. When the latter finally convene, «it turned out that Lieutenant Schmidt had thirty sons, from 18 to 52 years in age, and four daughters, unattractive, and no longer young».

Since then, the expression Children of Lieutenant Schmidt has become a Russian cliché for various fraudulent enterprises and people who use false pretenses to get money, such as claiming to be a war veteran or a «Chernobyl liquidator».

 

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