In St. Petersburg, Russia, the long-awaited opening of the new Mariinsky Theatre this week has the city in a bit of a frenzy. The theater has been ten years in the making, and in addition to the giddy opening-week excitement there is a feeling of palpable relief that it’s finally finished. There are also quite natural and inevitable comparisons with the beautiful green original Mariinsky Theatre, just across the Kryukov canal, with all of that building’s history and splendor. This modern, more ordinary-looking hall serves as a second, additional performance space for operas and ballets by the Mariinsky company, and it is a more practical space. In fact, there has been a lot of discussion in St. Petersburg on whether the design is too plain-looking or not. As company director Valery Gergiev and the hall’s architect, Jack Diamond, explained repeatedly, the idea of the hall is to feel comfortable and not too fancy, and keep all the excitement focused on the acoustics and on the stage: they want something that works.
Nevertheless, with President Vladimir Putin attending the hall’s glitzy opening gala on May 2, there was definitely excitement both on and off the stage–and naturally heavy security as well, with at least one roof sniper spotted, and every ticket-holder required to go through metal detectors before being admitted. In Putin’s speech, given at a lectern onstage just before the gala performance began, he spoke about Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky’s general and artistic director, coming to him first in the 1990s with the idea to build this theater, but the chaotic state of the country after the breakup of the Soviet Union meant nothing could be done until 2003. At that point, an architect, Dominique Perrault, was chosen and began designing and building the theater, but objections about the practicality of the design led to his being fired, and a new architect, Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto, was hired to take over the project in 2010. Since then, of course, there was the small matter of the worldwide economic crisis, but finally the theater is built. The $700 million project is financed entirely by the Russian government, which tells you it had political support at the highest levels.
At the May 2 gala, people showed up dressed to the nines, and the place was packed with hordes of invited journalists who came from seemingly everywhere: London and Paris to New York, Beijing, and Tokyo. The gala itself was one of the best I have attended, designed to show off every component of the company: opera and ballet onstage, orchestra in the pit and onstage, instrumental soloists onstage, and young singers and dancers from the Mariinsky’s training division. Unlike some galas, where one act comes on after another but they are not connected, this one seamlessly went from one performance to the next. For instance, children from the Mariinsky chorus performed the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” from a set that was designed to look like balconies from the old Mariinsky Theatre, facing the audience, with a solo harpist seated in the center stage balcony. That number flowed seamlessly into bass Ildar Abrazakov’s rendition of Don Basilio’s aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, with several chorus children incorporated into the action during that aria. The whole evening was festive but also serious from a musical perspective, though sometimes the effects of the constant display of the moving stage, or the occasional odd backdrop design or descending chandelier, could be a little silly. The acoustics are very, very good overall, especially for singers and chorus onstage, as well as the orchestra in the pit, which can be raised and lowered or eliminated completely. The acoustic is not ideal for a solo pianist or violinist, to judge from the few snippets of Rossini and Tchaikovsky performed by Denis Matsuev and Leonidas Kavakos.
Violist Yuri Bashmet gave an unusually introspective take on Saint-Saens’s famous “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals, to which ballerina Ekaterina Kondarova performed the Fokine choreography. Mikhail Petrenko’s “Ey, ukhnem” (aka “Song of the Volga Boatmen”) was deeply resonant and just soulful enough without going over the top, and mezzo Olga Borodina, in a glittery dress that matched her purplish-blue eyes, got huge and well-deserved “bravos” for her heartfelt, rich-voiced “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” from Samson et Dalila. But it was Anna Netrebko who brought down the house, dazzling in both vocal display–she sang the scena/cavatina from Verdi’s Lady Macbeth–and blindingly gold sparkling dress and platform shoes. “La ci darem la mano” was charmingly done as a duet with Netrebko and four male singers, each bringing her larger and larger bouquets of roses. In a last-minute surprise podium switch, Placido Domingo sung a bit of “La ci darem” to Netrebko, while conducting. The evening ended with a short scene from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, with all performing forces crammed onstage; the full opera gets its premiere on the Mariinsky II stage the next night.
This new hall joins the Concert Hall, opened in 2006, which is just down Dekabristov Street from both Mariinsky I and II. Just down the same street in the other direction is the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, the city’s premier music-training institution, and the ambitious idea is to eventually have a campus with connected greenways, walkways, and other elements that connect all the Mariinsky venues–a sort of Lincoln Center style cultural district, with a distinct Russian Empire flavor. Mariinsky II is the brainchild of Valery Gergiev, who celebrates his 25th year with the company later this year. Opening night also happened to be Gergiev’s 60th birthday. He looked almost like an emperor–though a very tired one–at the end of the gala evening’s opening celebrations, when all the performers sang him happy birthday before leaving the stage.
Below, view a gallery of photos of the Mariinsky II Theatre.