- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

No one was disputing the Russians' boast that the sold-out Iolanta Gala marked the first time in history that an embassy in Washington had been converted to full theatrical use for the production of a major opera.

"Iolanta," the spiritually powerful masterpiece Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky completed a year before his death in 1893, would have been a major draw under any circumstances for the 600 guests clustering on three sides of the flower-bedecked makeshift stage in the Russian Embassy's grand ballroom Friday night.

Opera buffs were particularly excited because "Iolanta" rarely has been staged outside of Europe, despite being one of Tchaikovsky's more critically acclaimed works. At its opening performance in St. Petersburg in 1892, it was far more favorably received than the second of the composer's productions that premiered the same night.

"The Nutcracker," it was predicted, soon would be forgotten.

It helped, of course, that stars from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow had been recruited for three of the major roles. Three Russians already living in the United States joined four Americans in the ensemble cast.

"They only had five days to work together after they met in New York," said Diane Corto, artistic director of the American Opera Music Theatre Company, the evening's beneficiary.

Time enough for the singers, perhaps, but not for the musicians awaiting them in Washington.

"The orchestra is in a bad mood," conductor Robert Luther admitted as guests began drifting to their seats after an hour and a half of cocktails and caviar in adjoining salons. "We only had two rehearsals, and they like to have six."

There were space limitations as well. Performers had to squeeze down narrow passageways past the seated audience to reach the stage, which was barely big enough for two divas to maneuver, much less the entire cast. The medieval-era costumes, which were to have been borrowed from the Washington Opera, fell through at the last minute. Replacements came from a local costume shop with predictable results. (Some of the characters appeared to be dressed as 17th-century English cavaliers.)

It hardly mattered. Once the music started and the accomplished voices soared, the audience was enraptured. And the acoustics were perfection.

Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov, who didn't arrive until the show was over because of a delayed flight from Moscow, left his wife, Svetlana, in charge of the hosting duties during the pre-performance VIP reception.

It was hardly a problem, especially since the gala also was billed as the launch of an ambitious new program of embassy cultural activities that she is coordinating.

"We have three beautiful places to do things now, and we want to use them in the most effective way," the attractive, multilingual blonde said, referring to the main embassy compound on Wisconsin Avenue NW, the ambassador's residence on 16th Street NW and the new cultural center in Kalorama.

After only a few months in Washington, the outgoing Mrs. Ushakov already has turned heads by involving herself in the city's arts scene in a manner that is unprecedented for a Russian (much less a Soviet) ambassador's spouse.

In previous years, such ladies were rarely seen and almost never heard even if they did speak English well enough.

"She's the 'new look,' and she wants to bring the embassy into the life of Washington," said Lucky Roosevelt, who has secured Mrs. Ushakov's sponsorship for a caviar-and-blini party for top donors before the March 12 Domingo Gala at the Kennedy Center.

Judging by the effusive praise, members of the diplomatic corps already are thoroughly charmed by their Russian colleague's wife.

"My favorite ambassadress in Washington she speaks Danish," said Denmark's envoy, K. Erik Tygesen.

"And best of all," piped in Greece's Alexandre Philon, "she makes the sign of the cross in the proper way."

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