There were a lot of opinions floating in the air last Wednesday night, on the eve of the opening of a new stage for St Petersburg’s legendary opera and ballet venue the Mariinsky Theatre, in a brand new £450m-building. The most accurate of all may well have been that of Boris Lifanovsky, a cellist and owner of Russia’s biggest classical music website: “After opening the new stage, the Mariinsky Theatre is going to repair the original building, then open its own radio station and TV channel, and then acquire a mini nuclear reactor — and at that point it will announce its independence and secede from the Russian Federation.”
Lifanovsky used to be a member of Valery Gergiev’s orchestra at the Mariinsky, but for the last few years he’s been a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre. Like many Muscovites, he talks about the power of the new Mariinsky Theatre with a mixture of excitement and envy. The inauguration of the new stage at the Mariinsky has become a symbol of the political influence and artistic clout of the Gergiev empire in St Petersburg.
By opening the new stage (on his birthday) Valery Gergiev, Russia’s most prominent and garlanded living conductor, and the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, is marking the quarter-century of his cultural activity on Teatralnaya Square, the historic home of music and theatre in St Petersburg. Gergiev began remaking the Mariinsky (then known as the Kirov) back in the late Eighties, at a time of absolute crisis for the reputation of the Soviet Union's major musical brands: the Bolshoi Theatre, no longer of interest to the powers that be, was falling into decline and the Leningrad Philharmonic had gone into hibernation following the death of legendary conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky.
"It took only a few years for the Mariinsky to become known as the musical centre of the new, independent Russia"
In this context it took only a few years for the Mariinsky Theatre, with its historic name restored, to become known as the musical centre of the new, independent Russia — largely thanks to Gergiev’s tireless work. The relationship between the Mariinsky and its director was a sort of mutually beneficial barter, the essence of which Gergiev expressed in a much quoted phrase: “Whether I’m in New York or in Salzburg, I’m still working for the Mariinsky Theatre.” Gergiev was quick to start performing abroad and to attract attention to the Mariinsky; all the while he was also increasing his fame through the successes of his protégés — many of whom became well integrated into the western opera scene.
Last week many of these protégés returned to St Petersburg in order to pledge their allegiance to their onetime godfather at the gala concert that accompanied the opening of the Mariinsky 2. They included stars of the world’s opera stages like Anna Netrebko and Olga Borodina, and male singers ldar Abdrazakov, Yevgeny Nikitin and Mikhail Petrenko, who have been dividing their time this season between the New York Met, the Opéra de Paris and La Scala, and ballet divas Diana Vishneva and Ulyana Lopatkina.
These cultural figures were joined in congratulating Gergiev by all the key players in the Russian political establishment, headed by President Vladimir Putin — few institutions have done more for those currently in power in Russia than the Mariinsky, which has, since the early Noughties, been something akin to an alternative ministry of culture. With its excellent reputation in the west, the Mariinsky has effectively been a cultural advocate of Russian internal and foreign policy. The parade of political and artistic stars at the opening of Mariinsky 2 was a further reminder, if one were needed, of the fact that Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theatre has played a key role in the socio-political, as well as the cultural, life of contemporary Russia.
"The Mariinsky 2 has quickly won acclaim from professionals"
The Mariinsky’s acquisition of a new building is a historic occasion that marks the moment that Gergiev’s empire has obtained absolute independence. The main stage of the Mariinsky was constructed in the 19th century, and clearly its founders had no idea of the frenetic activity that would unfold on the stage 200 years later: the historic building required a complete overhaul and serious technical upgrade. At the same time Gergiev knew perfectly well that in order for the Mariinsky metropolis to definitively cement its influence in the city and in the world, it would need to get hold of a new, modern stage and its own concert hall. After opening in autumn 2006, its unique acoustics — developed by Japanese designer Yasuhisa Toyota, and with no rival in Eastern Europe, let alone Russia — turned the Mariinsky's new concert hall into the centre of a musical cult. Likewise, the Mariinsky 2 has quickly won acclaim from professionals: right now there is nowhere better in Russia to put on an opera; in terms of functional capabilities the Mariinsky outstrips every other existing theatrical complex in Russia.
Of course, you’d be hard pressed to describe the building created by Canadian architects Diamond Schmitt Architects, which has divided critics, as a masterpiece. But something else is equally clear: the new building of the Mariinsky Theatre is the first successful attempt in the history of the former USSR to build an opera house on the model of the most recent European opera houses. Sitting in the stalls or standing on the stage of the new Mariinsky you might easily imagine that you’re not in St Petersburg at all: a theatre with technical and acoustic features this good would not be out of place anywhere in the Old World or the New. In this sense, Mariinsky 2 stands out from the crowd of other Russian opera houses, the majority of which are either a part of an imperial or totalitarian, Soviet context, or are somehow or another indebted to them. Free from any ideological background, the new stage of the Mariinsky opens up previously unseen perspectives for anyone working there and undoubtedly represents a significant opportunity for Russian opera today.
The next task for Gergiev will be to fill this space with meaningful artistic context. True, it’s not yet clear whether he has fully appreciated quite how difficult it will be to ensure the quality of the productions matches the quality of the surroundings; but, as his track record shows, there's no one in contemporary Russia who can match Gergiev when it comes to facing up to a challenge.