Last weekend, the latest production to allude to the opposition protests that have brought tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow opened at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Putin's hometown.Fearless Leader will not be pleased. Stalin's Own Ballet has also gone contemporary with a classic.
Gone are the tsarist-era costumes favoured by most who put on Boris Godunov, the 19th century opera by Modest Mussorgsky about a ruthless tsar who takes the throne after murdering the rightful heir.
In their stead, police walk the stage wearing their ominous black leather jackets. Camouflaged riot police bearing rubber truncheons hold back protesters begging the tsar for bread.
In Moscow, the grand Bolshoi Theatre has put on its own production targeting Putin's stranglehold on power. Renowned director Kirill Serebrennikov has taken the Golden Cockerel, an early 20th century opera written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as the tsarist regime entered its final death throes, and infused it with references to the present-day regime. One of the tsar's sons carries an iPad – a clear reference to Putin's protege, Dmitry Medvedev. KGB-style bodyguards clear Kremlin halls for the tsar's arrival. A grand parade celebrating the tsar features a Topol-M missile, Putin's favourite addition to yearly Victory Day festivities.The Romanovs banned Boris and Cockerel, but the Communists celebrated both works, presumably because the directors were well-enough vetted as to resist the temptation to push the limits of glasnost or de-Stalinization.
The opera opens with dozens of dignitaries and military men arriving to greet the tsar, a paranoid man divorced from reality.
At a performance of the opera on the eve of Putin's return to power this month, whispers of "it's just like the inauguration" ran through the audience.
"You can take any epoch in Russia and bring it to modern times and it will be the same thing," Serebrennikov said. "That's what happens in Russia – it's the same thing, over and over again."