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Bolshoi opens season amid strife and doom

By Michael Stott

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The 234th season of Russia's world-famous Bolshoi Theater opened on Tuesday with chaos, tragedy, betrayal and strife.

Off-stage, the plot was scarcely less dramatic.

Hours before the curtain went up on the opening night's production of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," the Bolshoi's newly appointed musical director was presented to the press.

Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov freely admitted in an interview that he was "not a real musical director" and was in the role temporarily after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Alexander Vedernikov.

Desyatnikov, who has written operas and film music but is not an experienced conductor, will not take the baton for the opera or ballet performances this season at the Bolshoi. Instead he will rely on a stable of five rotating conductors.

"I don't have any particular plans," Desyatnikov said in an interview with Reuters when asked about his strategy.

"My strategy can be summed up as not positioning myself as a real musical director ... rather as a link between the previous musical director and the one who will appear, I hope soon."

Vedernikov quit abruptly after eight years in July during the Bolshoi's summer tour of Italy, saying the theater was "putting bureaucratic interests before artistic ones."

COST OVERRUNS, DELAYS

One of his main targets was the $1-billion project to rebuild the theatre's 19th century main building. The former musical director said changes to plans to save money and poor management risked destroying the building's acoustics forever.

Officials are investigating allegations that millions of roubles destined for the renovation were stolen.

They are also probing cost overruns and delays which have pushed the completion date back by three years, forcing the theater to use a cramped, modern temporary home nearby for much longer than planned.

As builders outside hammered, drilled and swung cranes over the gutted shell of the historic Bolshoi building, Bolshoi General Director Anatoly Iksanov rejected Vedernikov's criticism in an interview.

He predicted the main stage would reopen on October 2, 2011 and produced a schedule of performances for that season to back up his optimism -- though he conceded that the probe into alleged irregularities might yet cause more delays.

Russia's financial crisis, Iksanov added, had not affected the level of government funding for the renowned opera and ballet house. "Some private sponsors have withdrawn but new ones have appeared to replace them," he explained.

Vedernikov, he added, had no right to criticize the renovation because he had never visited the building work. Iksanov also took a swipe at the conductor's performance.

"Vedernikov was good at a certain time in his life, he improved the quality of the orchestra but everyone has a certain ceiling," he said.

Inside the new stage, singers and musicians were throwing all their energy into the season's first night performance.

"Boris Godunov" is a Russian classic composed in the 19th century. It tells the story of a tsar who rules during the "Time of Troubles" when strife divides the land, nobles squabble and plot and the ruler is choked by guilt and remorse.

The opera ends with a dark lament predicting the arrival of the enemy and gathering doom.

Will the off-stage saga have a happier ending?

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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