As parties go, it was quite a do. A soldier with a machine gun on the roof. Yards of black limos ferrying in 2,000 admirers, all coiffed and coutured. A guest list headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and to make it go with a swing a cast list of stars that included the soprano Anna Netrebko, the tenor Placido Domingo, the ballet dancer Diana Vishneva, not to mention scores of the world’s leading dancers, musicians and singers. Yes, happy 60th birthday maestro Valery Gergiev.
It was a happy coincidence that his important birthday coincided with the opening on May 1 of the new Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg which was marked with a thrilling gala which was as much celebration as performance.
In fact, the party went on for three days with Mariinsky Director Gergiev, who, with his designer-stubble looks as if he has been up all night anyway, at the centre of a whirl of activity. Talking, making music, talking, making music. He met the press, conducted the gala, joined a post-opening party that went on until dawn. Next afternoon he conducted a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, before a reception at the yet-to-be-officially-opened Four Seasons Hotel. More applause; more happy birthdays.
On he went to conduct a late night concert which ended at about 1.40am, pausing en route for a few minutes during a performance of George Balanchine’s “Jewels”, just to make sure it was as perfect as he hoped. It was.
No respite. Next day he had lunch with the press again — even offering advice to the cultural aspirations of the Gulf.
“It’s about quality,” he averred. “Invest in the best. There is the huge aquarium, the towers, the water displays, but culture will make it a more attractive destination, an international centre.”
Then he was off again to conduct a wildly erotic Bolero with Diana Vishneva and, two hours later, to oversee Placido Domingo in Verdi’s “Nabucco”.
This display of super-charged energy was to make sure the world could be in no doubt that the Mariinsky company is now host to one of the biggest cultural complexes in the world.
The new theatre can seat 2,000 and has two additional spaces, one a 200-seater on the roof, the other a lobby on the third floor which can be used for intimate performances and for teaching. The original Mariinsky Theatre, built in 1860, can accommodate an audience of 1,600 and there is a concert hall for 1,200.
President Putin opened the gala by praising his friend Valery and announcing he had bestowed a birthday present on him — The Heroes of Labour medal.
“We need to breathe life into the theatre,” he said. “We want it to live, so that people are attracted and can feel the charm of modern technology. Then it will shine in all its glory.”
He acknowledged the development of the new theatre had been a “long story”, something that Gergiev himself had highlighted at the earlier press conference: “I have been waiting for this for maybe twentysomething years,” he said. “I started here in 1988 as musical director and after about 1999 we had only one goal which was to make sure that the company survived, supported by the state and good audiences. Now it will be possible to put on 15 performances a week. Maybe more.”
Like many grand projects the wait was compounded by disagreements over the architecture and by money problems. The original design, an ambitious curved edifice which looked like a huge bicycle helmet with fluted sides, failed to receive technical — or popular — approval, so the bid for the project was re-opened and won by Diamond Schmitt, the Toronto, Canada, firm.
The original budget soared from the initial estimate of around $100 million (Dh367 million) in 2003 to a final total of $700 million, with the bulk of the financing coming from the federal government.
Mariinsky 11 takes up a city block alongside the Kryukov Canal, on the opposite bank to the original Rococo-style theatre, Mariinsky 1, with its glowing white and gold auditorium, and a couple of streets away from the concert hall. Originally built in 1874 as workshops for the making of sets, props and costumes, it was burnt down in 2003 and re-opened in 2006.
“Only two and half walls remained,” recalled Gergiev. “It was like Stalingrad. It felt so, so painful. Then I thought, this is an opportunity — it could become a concert hall.
“It means that with these three halls, up to 20,000 people will be able to enjoy opera, ballet or classical music over just one weekend.
“Maybe over two or three days you can see an opera company, a ballet company, an orchestra, the children’s chorus and our academy of young singers. We will be able to put on five, six, seven performances a day.
“It used to be a luxury to think we would have lots of children and students in the audience but now it is a top priority. It is crucial that we keep the young to stay, grow and flourish and then to conquer the world. We want them to stay here. Look at Anna Netrebko who was at the Mariinsky conservatoire and still lives 40 to 50 metres from here.”
The Mariinsky is starting a programme for children in the 5-7-year bracket and there will be “huge opportunities” for them
“It is an engagement with the present and the future,” says Gergiev. “Nearly every parent will be thinking, what is there here for our children? We will have ten, twenty times the number of programmes for young people. Imagine children in this space.” He gestures to the steeply racked seats where the press are gathered. “We can have a piano, singers, a wind ensemble here every day of every week.
“There is so much room in the theatre that we can carry on multiple rehearsals at one time. We can keep works in repertoire as never before. It may not be limitless what we can do — but it is much closer.”
The new set up will allow him to produce more records, such as his most recent Shostakovich symphony No 7 “Leningrad”, and films, one of which was Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” with Netrebko and another released last year, “The Nutcracker” in 3D.
“It is not about making money but building a legacy,” he insists. “It was always my intention to make records but my answer to what the record industry should try to do today is not always to look at the bottom line. You cannot always act if you think you will lose five dollars. You cannot stage, say, Shostakovich, if you fear losing money. You cannot think that way. You have to bring these operas, these ballets scores, nearer to the audiences and they must all be recorded in same venue, with the same orchestra and the same conductor. That way they will come out in a spectacular way.”
He has the orchestras, he has the seats, he has his own drive and vision. What about the new building itself?
It is not a thing of beauty. A massive seven storeys and 851,580 square feet (79,114 square metres), it has the air of a provincial civic hall or, worse, as the local critics have it, a shopping mall. Even as the last brick was being cemented into place there were petitions to have it razed to the ground.
The architect, Jack Diamond, argues that he had to fill an entire city block and had to fit in with the low rise, sturdy buildings in the streets around it.
“Every architect wants his shot at doing an extravagant building,” he admitted. “But it would be inappropriate here.”
The architect argues that he has created a cathedral inside — a nod to the fabulous gleaming churches that embellish St Petersburg’s skyline — with 4,000 square metres of honey onyx from Iran and Turkey and a myriad glittering Swarovski lights. No doubt, it will be more effective in the dark of a St Petersburg winter.
Inside it’s a muddle of stairs that swoop and circle, a cramped entrance area which cries out for a grand stairway and mean public space.
But let us not cavil – where it matters, it works, and does so brilliantly. Gergiev said he decided Diamond was the man for the job having seen the architect’s work for the Toronto Opera House seven years ago and that confidence is repaid with three main balconies in a horse shoe made of light coloured wood and plaster with perfect sight lines from all but the very peripheral seats.
And to match, the acoustics by the German company Mueller-BBM ensure the sound at the very back is as crystal clear as the chandelier that hangs above the VIP box.
“I have been here 25 years in September,” he says. “I know that acoustics are a huge issue. It’s a huge waste of time energy and money if the acoustics are not good. It’s a killer.”
Just how well the sound, the sight and the seating works was demonstrated in the gala.
It helps to have some of the world’s finest performers at the end of your baton such as pianist Denis Matsuev and violinist Leonidas Kavakos as well as the bass René Pape and mezzo-sopranos Olga Borodina and Ekaterina Semenchuk. The latter sang the “Gypsy” song from Carmen, followed by Diana Vishneva dancing Habanera from the Carmen-Suite and Yekaterina Kondaurova who danced — exquisitely — “The Dying Swan” by Saint-Saens.
As if to prove his point about the importance of the young there were charming contributions by the Mariinsky Children’s Chorus and students of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.
It also helps to have a huge space back stage which not only accommodates the 2,500 work force but gives the designers unlimited opportunities with sets that can slide on and off, backward and forward and a stage big enough to take a replica of the old Mariinsky auditorium. As the gala proved, clumsy changes of scene are a thing of the past.
The versatility was shown by scenes from the ballets “Le Sacre du Printemps” and “Sacre” danced by, among others, Kondaurova, who, once she had finished, stayed poised on stage as it slipped away to allow the entry of René Pape singing the “Méphistophélès” aria from Faust. Without a pause he was replaced by a scene from Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims” with a cast of 14 and six full-sized landaus.
In a witty moment, Olga Borodina stepped from a landau, where she had been concealed, to sing Dalila’s aria from “Samson and Dalila”.
And we had a laugh. In the duet between from Zerlina and Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera — Netrebko again — four suitors, each laden with bouquets in increasing sizes, vowed their love for her only to be trumped by Gergiev himself who leapt on to the stage to claim his prize, leaving Placido Domingo to conduct the orchestra.
Ah, Placido. In one of his many apparently random asides — all of which come to make an important point — Gergiev took time to praise the great man.
“Placido Domingo was invited here not because he is so very famous but because he was the first mega performer who came to Russia in February 1992 to do “Otello”. The country was two months old but Placido predicted that there would be a flood of incredible voices from Western houses who would come here and he wanted to help show that the company would survive those hugely risky times. We needed that.
As the gala orchestra ended the evening with the inevitable chorus of happy birthday, it was obvious that we were celebrating not just survival but the emerging pre-eminence of the Mariinsky, of St Petersburg and perhaps even Russia itself.
Just as Peter the Great, the Romanov Tsar who built St Petersburg out of marshland in the early 18th century to be his Window on the West, now the West will be gazing at the achievement of Gergiev the Great.
He said: “Maybe it is not good to talk about what will happen in 20-25 years but I hope this theatre will be seen naturally a cultural giant amongst the famous opera houses of the world.
“Russia is seen as a country which maybe thinks, but not always deep enough. And maybe acts, but not always in the right way. I have to say that the whole world makes big mistakes, Russia included. But the whole world makes good things, thank God, Russia included. I swear.”