As a celebration of accessible Russian culture and history, the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics worked a treat. But as a piece of entertainment tied to a high-energy sporting event, it fell somewhat flat – even if the production values of a few episodes were dazzling.
The ceremony was designed to showcase Russia to the world as a modern, sophisticated country that both celebrates its rich, troubled heritage and looks optimistically to the future. It was also meant to bathe Russian President Vladimir Putin in glory in front of a global TV audience that probably attracted hundreds of millions of viewers.
The ceremony started slowly, then built creative momentum. Early in the show, Russian landscapes floated overhead in the arena's enormous space, like clouds. So far, so good.
But then the whole show got bogged down in the athletes parade, which traditionally happens at the very end of an Olympics. The athletes emerged from a ramp in the centre of the arena floor, onto which an enormous image of Earth was projected, and paraded around the edge before taking their seats.
To give artistic director Konstantin Ernst his due, he was attempting to give the athletes parade a twist that would keep the audience engaged; earlier in the day, he had pronounced the end-of-ceremony parades "boring." In the end, the same description could be given to his version.
The athletes, of course, were thrilled to be in front of 40,000 spectators and a global TV audience. "It's always so exciting to represent Canada on such a huge stage," said Canadian bobsledder Heather Moyse. "Walking in with this amazing group of people is a huge honour, one that I will remember for a long time."
The show got back to life with a few superbly staged episodes from Russian history. The highlight was the imperial ball, inspired by Tolstoy's War and Peace. With a cast of hundreds, it featured a graceful performance by Svetlana Zakharova, the prima ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet. It was treated to the biggest applause of the event.
The Russian Revolution made a star appearance, but it was treated as a piece of avant-garde art, not the defining – and brutal – moment in the country's 20th-century history. By comparison, Danny Boyle's depiction of the British industrial revolution and its "dark, satanic mills" in London 2012's opening ceremony was gritty, honest and compelling.
The revolution segment featured warships firing cannons, followed by the industrial symbols of the emerging Soviet power, such as trains and machinery. The message – that Russia's industrial strength belonged to another era – was perhaps unintended.
From a technological point of view, the ceremony's cleverest moment came when the entire arena floor was transformed into a sort of Imax screen. Onto it was projected a stormy ocean, complete with a ship crewed by actors, that almost felt real. Another memorable moment came when the arena was filled with performers wearing LED suits, lit up in the colours of the Russian flag.
The ceremony was, of course, filled with Russian celebrities and heroes – including Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut, and Vladislav Tretiak, the goalie who was the scourge of Team Canada hockey players in the 1970s. Mr. Tretiak was given the honour of being one of the torchbearers and lit the Olympic flame. Another torchbearer was tennis star Maria Sharapova.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Mr. Ernst, who is the director-general of Russia's highly popular Channel One TV network, said the opening ceremony "should be an artistic masterpiece and informative because it targets people who may know very little of the country. … We want them to carry a love of Russia."
It was accessible, and there were masterful parts. But overall, the ceremony lacked an edge, sustained energy and, crucially, humour. The audience reacted accordingly. If Mr. Putin is lucky, that energy will come out for the Russian athletes over the next two weeks as they hunt for gold.