I’ve seen a dozen and a half theater performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg this year. Some turned out first-rate, as I expected from their creators – Yuri Butusov, Mikhail Bychkov, Dmitry Krymov, Evgeny Marcelli, Andrey Moguchy, Rimas Tuminas. Andriy Zholdak’s production of The Three Sisters was a disappointment: so much talent and imagination gone to waste.

One of these first-rate productions stands out in my mental landscape, theatrically and literally. It is the staging of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm by director Andrey Moguchy, set designer Vera Martynov, and composer Alexander Manotskov, at the Bolshoy Drama Theater in St. Petersburg. I saw it there last February. The more I read about Ostrovsky, his work and his perception by critics, writers and artists, the more I appreciate that production.

I won’t be exaggerating much if I say The Storm (or, more precisely perhaps, The Thunderstorm) is well known, much hated and little understood in Russia. As I’ve tried to explain in a comment to Himadri Chatterjee’s post on Turgenev’s A Month in the Country,

it’s force-fed to kids as part of the high school curriculum and the approved approach to the play goes back to [Nikolai] Dobrolyubov’s article, A Ray of Light in the Realm of Darkness. I only realized the greatness of Act 3 (the tryst in the dell” by the Volga) when I saw Andrey Moguchy’s production in St. Petersburg last February… Apollon Grigoriev praised that scene effusively in a[n] 1860 article (subtitled “from [the] letters to Ivan S. Turgenev”) but I was ignorant [until recently] of his criticism, as opposed to Dobrolyubov’s positivist angle.

One of the reasons why The Storm isn’t well understood is that basic questions don’t get asked about the milieu where the action happens, despite the many clues in the text. The setting is a provincial town and the central characters are merchants, quite a different world from the oasis of Turgenev’s country squires. Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky, an expert on Old Believers, was certain that Kabanikha was a staunch Old-Rite Christian. Moreover, he argued that it was common among the Old Believers for unmarried girls and young men to enjoy virtually unlimited sexual freedom, while married life – in contrast – was governed by an ultraconservative, antiquated code.

Whether or not Melnikov-Pechersky, both a chronicler and critic of the Old Faith community, was correct in his assessment, his remarks shed a new light on the words of one of the characters addressed to another young man:

So you fell in love with someone?… It’s all right. We have freedom in this respect. Girls can hang out as they wish – the parents don’t care. It’s only married women that sit locked in.

Then there’s the sense of nature and its power – a summer thunderstorm by a mighty river. If it was drilled in you as a child that The Storm is mostly a work of social criticism, it’s harder to open your eyes to all the play’s facets, but productions like this help shed such blinkers. The posters alone are works of art. The curtain – “The Life of Katerina” (as in “lives of saints”) by Svetlana Korolenko, a master of Palekh minature – is a masterpiece by itself, apart from its vital role in the set design.

Not that it’s a perfect production – nothing is. Katerina’s artificial accent is suspicious, for one. Also, I watched the performance from the last row up there so I had a perfect view of the whole stage but missed out on some of the details. The front seats probably offered a different experience. The female characters’ outfits reminded me somewhat of the choir in the Kupfer-Sykora production of Der Fliegende Holländer from the 1980s (with Lisbeth Balslev). But that’s just one detail. The visual complexity and richness of this work is striking. I’m not commenting on Manotskov’s score – also essential to the staging – not being qualified for that: I simply felt the music was right for the drama.


  1. I would love to see a production of this play. I did enjoy reading it (in Joshua Cooper’s translation),and I know Janáček’s marvellous opera based on this play, but I don’t think i’ve heard of any production in English.

    I was not aware of its background amongst the community of Old Believers. I shall certainly investigate further.

    • Pavel Melnikov, who would later sign his fiction “Andrei Pechersky,” was considered one of Russia’s top experts on the Old Believers in the late 1850s, especially on the “schismatics” of the Nizhny Novgorod governorate. His opinion carried some weight at the time, although his two major novels about Old Believers had not yet been completed.

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