In Lativa even opera is about the national question. The magnificent Latvian National Opera next to the Pilsetas Kanals in central Riga was built when Latvia was under German occupation in 1865. It was built by and for Germans, with cameos of Goethe, Schiller, Wagner in the ornate plasterwork. Latvians would never go in the place and opera itself was seen as a uniquely Prussian and alien entertainment.
When Latvia was finally liberated from German domination in 1918, the opera briefly became a national hate-symbol – a monument to a century of foreign domination. When Riga fell under Soviet domination after 1945, the Russians rehabilitated the opera as a symbol of the cultural ambitions of the proletariat and ‘modernised’ it. The building was gutted, the stucco removed, neon lights were installed and the plush red seats replaced with proletarian brown corduroy. Latvians boycotted it even more. Never has a building designed for entertainment aroused such visceral loathing as the National Opera. It was a running sore.
All the more surprising then that the Latvians didn’t raze the building in 1991 when they finally achieved liberation from the Soviets. Not only that, they decided to restore it to its former glory and extended the building to become a cultural centre. A team of architects and historians spent five years exploring the history of the building and then meticulously recreating its Belle Epoch splendour.
What a job. The interior is incredible – like a gold leave grotto. An enormous chandelier with 250 bulbs illuminates red plush seats – proper ones, not the kind of flip-up benches we are used to. Silk wallpaper and elaborate cornices adorn the public areas and even the wooden coat hangers have been reproduced from 1865 drawings. It is impossibly grand – a costly folly, surely, for a poor country of only 2 and a half million people.
Latvians were determined to show that they could do anything after liberation, so they decided to make their opera house an international symbol of national renewal. The opera was accorded top priority. Ex pat businessmen donated large sums of money. A suitcase of gold leaf appeared from nowhere. And the only stipulation was that it should be a Latvian National Opera for Latvians. Russians make up a third of the population of Riga, but they are very definitely not invited to perform, unless they can show that they are fluent in Latvian. Even the surtitles are in English and Latvian – no Russian spoken here.
But with Latvia on the rocks economically, what happens now? Well, they’ve just had to cancel a big Wagnerian epic because of cuts of a million euros. But the production of La Traviata that I saw was first class. Modernised and set partly in a bordello, complete with bare-breasted prostitutes, this was a very Latvian interpretation of Verdi’s classic. Fitting perhaps for a city that has been called the “Bangkok of the Baltic” because of its reputation for lap dancing bars and women of easy virtue. Well, La Traviata is about a high class prostitute, and there was nothing tacky or sleazy about this production. Lavish costumes and sets must have cost a lot of money that this country doesn’t have. Better go while they can still afford it.