Tag Archives: Sergei Radlov

Alexander Ostuzhev house, Moscow

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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”

The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of insignificant intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.

 

 

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Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow

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There are names that are more than mere names. They are worlds unto themselves. For me Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is one of them. All the stranger, then, to walk past the building at 14/16 Zemlyanoi Val Street in which Prokofiev lived from 1936 until 1941. It’s a pretty down-to-earth place that houses, among other things, a foreign currency exchange booth, a beauty salon and a flower store. It’s one of those imposing buildings erected in the Stalin era that look like they may just last forever minus a day – rather, alas, like Stalin’s influence in Russia. Not much for the eye to look at, but not going anywhere soon. The fact that it is located on the massive and massively busy Garden Ring Road doesn’t help. The sound and air pollution is commensurate to a place besieged by automobiles night and day, 24/7. You can see the dust and/or exhaust material fairly dripping down the plaque.

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Of course it wasn’t like this when the composer lived here – not the stores, not the noise, not the traffic. It was apparently a good place to work. Judging by chronologies of Prokofiev’s compositions, he wrote several of his most enduring and best known pieces in the relatively short time he called this building home. Some include: Romeo and Juliet (ballet, 1938); his Piano Sonata No. 6 in A-major for piano (1939-40); and the score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky (1938), as well as the cantata and many songs that come out of it. In 1937-38 Prokofiev wrote incidental music for a production of Hamlet by theater director Sergei Radlov in Radlov’s own studio theater in Leningrad. I found some anonymously-penned information about that particular piece on a Voice of Russia webpage (I’ve edited out a typo or two in the text below):

“In 1937 Prokofiev’s longtime friend and chess partner Sergei Radlov, a drama director, made up his mind to produce Hamlet and asked Prokofiev to write the music. ‘In a letter Radlov, whom I respect as a great authority on Shakespeare, detailed his wishes, which so reflected my own that I immediately got down to work,’ Prokofiev wrote in his diary.
“Working on the score, Prokofiev always had in mind that the thing would be played by a small house orchestra and sung by actors, not by professional singers. When writing Ophelia’s song he threw in a number of English and Scottish tunes that were popular when Shakespeare was still around…
“Prokofiev’s music was a formidable contribution to Radlov’s effort. The May 1938 premiere was a roaring success and a year later Prokofiev was already weighing an opera about Hamlet and even consulted with Radlov about the libretto. However, the idea never materialized…
“Stage music never lasts long, usually going out with the production it is written for. Prokofiev’s Hamlet was a notable exception. In 1954, already after Prokofiev’s death, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky put together a nine-piece suite and played it in concert…”

One will also note that the years Prokofiev spent in this building more or less coincided with what history has come to call the Great Purges. Thousands, tens-of-thousands of Prokofiev’s colleagues and peers would be arrested and disappear in the prison camps in these years. It is one of the more uncomfortable pages in Prokofiev’s biography that he wrote a handful of panegyrics to Joseph Stalin. At least two were written right here – Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution (1936-37), and Zdravitsa, a cantata written on the occasion of Stalin’s 60th birthday (1939). Prokofiev was the recipient of no less than six Stalin Prizes, the highest award a Soviet civilian could receive. And then there is the curiosity of Prokofiev dying the same day as Stalin. It meant that nobody paid any attention to Prokofiev’s passing at all.

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