This article was written in celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, Russia.
In the foreword to John Ardoin’s book, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov, the late actor and writer Peter Ustinov remarks that for most of us in the West, the history of the Mariinsky Theater has been hidden from view. We have been kept especially ignorant of this theater’s daily workings. Ustinov writes, “I had only learned about the Mariinsky opera house by hearsay, a haze of rumors and opinions unleashed by elderly Russian relatives of whom there was no shortage at the time.”(1) He also discusses the physical outlay of the building which gives the eye so much pleasure when seen for the first time. Along with its sea-green exterior bordered in white trim and a blue interior that seems to come right out of the sea, it is washed with colors, both inside and out, that would make Neptune proud. Ustinov’s comparison of the Mariinsky with the appearance of the Bolshoi Theater brings out the differences between the two theaters. “It (the Mariinsky) is a lovely building of exquisite proportions which created a scandal at its inception for reasons difficult to comprehend today. It was apparently de rigueur in those days for opera houses to be finished in red, cream and gold. The Mariinsky broke into a fastidious world in a mantle of blue, cream and gold, which give it a pleasant aura of lightness.”.(2)
In 2003 St. Petersburg celebrated its 300th anniversary, and a glance at the origins of the Mariinsky clearly indicates how much the theater is a part of the city’s history. The first Mariinsky was founded in 1783 fol lowing a decree by Empress Catherine the Great to stage the first Russian comic operas and the best works of foreign composers, largely Italian. The theater, designed by the leading theater architect of the day, Alberto Cavos, was later named for the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of tsar Alexander II. The theater’s opening heralded a golden era in the city’s operatic history. Verdi’s opera La Forza del destino premiered there in 1862 followed by the premieres of many Russian classics, two of which were Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila and Modest Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov From 1935 to 1992 it bore the name of Kirov, the well-known early communist leader and Leningrad’s party chief, but in 1992 regained its imperial title: the Mariinsky Theater.
In 1988 the name of Valery Gergiev became synonymous with the theater itself. In that year Gergiev became artistic director of the theater, and since then his name has been attached almost symbiotically to all the artistic successes and, unfortunately, the failures of its opera productions. In no other opera company in the world today is the artistic director so completely identified with the well-being of his company. Not even James Levine’s great success as artistic director of the Metro politan Opera and its orchestra matches the emotional intensity Gergiev brings to the Mariinsky. It is not uncommon for us in the western opera world to think of Gergiev as suddenly appearing on the international opera scene complete with the ability necessary to run an opera company with all its accompanying artistic and financial travails. However, as John Ardoin so aptly tells us, “Gergiev had been a member of the theater’s conducting staff since 1978, so he is no metaphorical Prince Charming who simply appeared on the scene and by his embrace brought the Kirov back to life. Instead, he structured the theater’s rebirth on the foundation of discipline and professionalism laid down by his mentor and predecessor at the theater, the conductor Yuri Temirkanov. But it was Gergiev’s energy and foresight and the breadth of his phenomenal gifts (as well as Russia’s new political climate) that turned the tide.”(3) Although it is true, as Jeremy Eichler says in The Washington Post, that Ardoin’s “book is informative, but [it] leans to ward hagiography”(4) by comparing Gergiev to the visionary thrust of Peter the Great, there is no doubt that his great gifts have moved the company far beyond what anyone could have expected in so short a period of time. Time will tell if Gergiev’s abundant energy will stretch the company beyond its limits.
1 John Ardoin, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 2001 ), p.9
3 Ibid, p.17
4 Jermy Eichler, “Mother Russia’s Brilliant, Difficult Child,” The Washington Post (17 Feb. 2002), p.GO1