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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Shutting its opera house for renovation was hard enough. But Brussels' La Monnaie has raised the bar by choosing an ambitious and rare reworking of Rachmaninov to launch a year of innovation in ad hoc venues.
The consciously Wagnerian vision of "Troika", a first ever staging of the late-Romantic Russian symphonist's only three operatic works as a single evening's performance, has stretched creativity, in design as well as musically, in the restrictive modern confines of the Belgian capital's Theatre National.
And audiences responded with delight to young St. Petersburg conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov and a cast of mainly Russian soloists, including veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus as the "Skupoi Rytsar", the Covetous Knight, in the pivotal piece.
Tatarnikov, who compared it to mounting a longer Wagner work in a difficult space, teases out echoes among the three very different short operas, with the early work "Aleko" opening and "Francesca da Rimini" the third. For want of a pit, Danish designer Kirsten Dehlholm threads visual pattern and contrast through the three while weaving the orchestra into the sets.
"To be honest, all they have in common is the composer," said Tatarnikov. "That's in fact where the interest and the challenge of the production lies -- to stage three different stories while still creating an arc of tension among them."
For "Aleko", a murderous love triangle Rachmaninov wrote for his 1893 graduation, Dehlholm has the cast move in psychedelic costume arranged across a terrace; "Francesca", relating Dante's murdered and damned lovers, has the same terrace but costumes in abstract black and white. Both, she calls, a "visual score".
In both, too, Tatarnikov must work the sound of his singers and chorus over the on-stage orchestra. No easy task. And in "Rytsar", a Pushkin tale of familial greed, Dehlholm brings the soloists front of stage, working over video shot in a nearby derelict cinema where she first hoped to stage the entire work.
Instead, audience immersion is achieved by the chorus, in full costume, circulating trance-like through the foyer at the interval in the Theatre National. There, disoriented La Monnaie regulars are also directed around the unfamiliar surroundings by ushers in T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Get Lost".
A sense of adventure and discovery, which will take the company through half a dozen other venues including the circus and an old covered market over the coming season, is evident in "Troika". It takes the audience on a journey from the student Rachmaninov to the symphonic maestro contemplating a first love for opera that was thwarted by a lukewarm response to "Aleko".
For Tatarnikov, that early work, with bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas as the gypsy Aleko and the Bolshoi's young soprano Anna Nechaeva as his lover, is a traditional, Italian-style opera; for designer Dehlholm, it is "opera as theater".
Her rich, video-backed "Rytsar", with baritone Ilya Silchukov memorable as The Duke opposite Leiferkus's Knight, is, she says, "opera as architecture", while Tatarnikov calls its complex, wordiness "the most Wagnerian" of the three.
"Francesca", with Nechaeva, Dimitris Tiliakos as her husband and Sergey Semishkur as his brother her lover, is "opera as visual art" to Dehlholm. For Tatarnikov it is "symphonic opera".
Throughout the evening, the playing, the design, the raw and unlovely human emotions of the simple plots - as well as the lowering background presence in all three pieces of bass-baritone Alexander Vassiliev - bring the works together as one.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Ralph Boulton