As other international theaters lose their luster in the ongoing financial crisis, the unveiling of the Mariinsky II is a bold step for Russian culture. JENNIFER MELICK charts the rise of the new theater, which opens this month with a three-day program of festival activities.
A rendering of the Mariinsky's new opera house designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects of Canada
© Diamond Schmitt Architects 2013
For anyone who grew up in the Soviet era, this is a head-spinning time to contemplate the intersecting fortunes of arts centers in the U.S. and Russia. In the U.S., we look back to a more optimistic age, when major projects such as Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center were built, while today, in the wake of the recession, the bulk of architectural arts projects planned are renovations or modest spaces meant to address narrow educational, operational or artistic gaps. Meanwhile, in Russia — where venerated artistic institutions carried on their traditions on shoestring budgets in Soviet times — the Mariinsky Theatre's ambitious new 2,000-seat opera house is opening the first week in May in Saint Petersburg. And it is being funded entirely by the Russian government, at a cost of $700 million.
The new theater, known as Mariinsky II, stands across the Kryukov Canal from the historic 1860 structure that saw the world premieres of works such as Boris Godunov, The Maid of Pskov, The Queen of Spades and the classic 1895 production of Swan Lake; where Feodor Chaliapin sang Boris Godunov, Méphistophélès, Don Quichotte and Don Basilio; and where Vsevolod Meyerhold staged Tristan und Isolde, Orfeo ed Euridice and The Snow Maiden. The modern era, under Valery Gergiev, has produced star singers including Olga Borodina, Larissa Diadkova, Ildar Abdrazakov and Anna Netrebko. The new theater does not replace the original 1,600-seat Mariinsky but exists as an additional space that will effectively double the performance calendar for the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet. It is the second new building in a Lincoln Center-style cultural district for Saint Petersburg; a new concert hall, home to the Mariinsky Orchestra, was privately financed and completed in 2006.
Such a scenario would have been unimaginable in Soviet times, when the Mariinsky (also known as the Kirov) was largely cut off from the West, except for periodic tours that helped inject badly-needed foreign currency into the company. As the largest piece of this new cultural district, Mariinsky II represents a bold declaration — that the Mariinsky is one of the country's most powerful cultural symbols, that the government backs it by putting its own money behind it, and that its seats can easily be filled by the increasing numbers of tourists and other visitors to Saint Petersburg.
"Twelve or fourteen years ago, Russia was politically unstable, economically I would say second- or third-division," said Mariinsky general and artistic director Valery Gergiev in January, a few days after the new hall's first acoustic tests with singers and orchestra. "Now Russia is an economically confident country. Look at what is happening in Europe — and sometimes even Asia and North America. They are vulnerable. Spain, Greece, Ireland, even France and Great Britain. Holland is suffering, with cultural projects not supported as well as they were before. Russia is doing pretty well. And this opera house has to become a consequence of a more or less successful decade from about 2001 or 2002, when we started to talk about the idea of building the new opera house. It was not the worst decade in Russian history."
Despite Gergiev's self-confident swagger, the Mariinsky II theater has not had an easy time being born. The original architect, selected following a 2003 competition, was Dominique Perrault, whose design featured a many-sided structure of gold-hued glass surrounding the new theater building's black marble façade. As the project became mired in delays and cost overruns, locals took to calling it the "golden potato," and in 2009, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a redo — a second architectural competition. The winner of the second competition, held in 2009, was the Toronto firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, a firm Gergiev had gotten to know while visiting the Canadian Opera Company, whose Four Seasons Centre Diamond had also designed.
Diamond's winning design, more practical than Perrault's, was undertaken in challenging circumstances, after construction had already begun on the first design. "There had been a sort of hybrid scheme, working with acousticians and architects in Italy and with a construction company in Russia," says Jack Diamond, the firm's coprincipal. "They had gotten permission from what are known as the expediters, or expertisers — code examiners, though they are more than that in Russia, where they control the whole process. It took a while for us to develop the scheme and get permission for it, but we did, and we adapted the foundations of the previous scheme to the new one. And without compromise in terms of the hall." One of the project's late-hour heroes was Marat Oganesyan, construction manager from the Russian Ministry of Culture, who supervised the project's completion. "Marat Oganesyan is the one who was pulled in to finish the Bolshoi renovation," says Diamond. "He is phenomenal. It was very apparent that we were not being well served. Valery and others saw to it that we would get the right person." (The "others" are not insignificant: they are German Gref, president of Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, and cochairman of the Mariinsky; and Alexei Kudrin, Russia's ex-minister of finance.)
Rendering of the new theater's rooftop terrace, with views of St. Petersburg
© Diamond Schmitt Architects 2013
The new theater features a masonry base, a metal roof and windows everywhere, including one at the entrance that allows people to see into the house — "unlike classical architectural devices of opera houses in the past, which were symbolic of elitism, of an exclusivity of entering the portals," says Diamond. The auditorium is a classic horseshoe shape, with "the acoustic of an eighteenth-century hall," says Diamond. For this building, which fills a whole city block, Diamond wanted to "see to it that the scale of the city and the material aspects of the city were continued, but with a contemporary expression." From the building, visitors can see Mariinsky I, across the canal; the theater will also boast a rooftop terrace and amphitheater for smaller-scale performances, with views of the entire city.
One of the main goals of the new theater is to address technical deficiencies of the 150-year-old space, which typically closes for several days to erect sets for some performances, and where designs by visiting directors often have to be adjusted before they can be staged. Now, Gergiev is looking forward to introducing "more technically provocative, more powerful" Western productions. "Look at the Met," says Gergiev. "If they want, they can put up a big, big show, because technically there is very little you can call 'limited' — everything is possible. For the last thirty or forty years, the Met was demonstrating that technically the power was nearly endless. I think more or less the same happens now to us." To date, the Mariinsky has released nineteen recordings — fifteen CDs and four videos — on its self-produced label introduced in 2009. With the opening of Mariinsky II, the company plans to increase its video recordings of live opera and ballet performances. Gergiev is especially enthusiastic about 3D technology, which will be expanded in the new house. The Mariinsky aired its Nutcracker in 3D in movie theaters in Europe, South Korea and the U.S. in November and December. On February 14, the Mariinsky Ballet's Swan Lake was broadcast live from Saint Petersburg, in partnership with Cameron Pace Group (movie director James Cameron's 3D company with cofounder Vince Pace), RealD 3D and Glass Slipper Live Events.
What else will happen in the new Mariinsky? With two stages to use, there will be more calendar slots for rare Russian works, promises Gergiev. But the big winners "by far," says Gergiev, will be "schools and universities, students and schoolchildren from age nine to twenty-five." A major expansion of educational performances is something Gergiev spoke about passionately last fall in New York at a press conference about the May 2013 opening of Mariinsky II. Although at press time details were thin on exactly what this expansion will entail, Gergiev stressed his belief in the vital importance for children of getting up close to high-quality performances, which previously could not be a priority, given the Mariinsky's already tightly packed performance schedule at the theater. Clearly, the new theater and increased number of Saint Petersburg performances mean that the Mariinsky musician roster will need to increase. The Mariinsky Ballet and Opera will alternate stage time in the new theater roughly fifty/fifty, performing the other half of the time in the old theater. The Mariinsky Orchestra's home will continue to be the concert hall. The Mariinsky's international touring schedule will decrease somewhat in order to accommodate more performances in Saint Petersburg and in Russia's more distant provinces.
Opening events at the Mariinsky are scheduled over three days this month. The opening — in typical seat-of-the-pants Gergiev style, detailed programming was still being worked out for an expected announcement in mid-winter — will embrace "opera, ballet, singing, dancing, instrumental, orchestra in the pit, orchestra onstage.… We want to try everything, so people can learn from this small festivity as much as possible about the venue! And we'll have a good time, good singers — Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina, Ildar Abdrazakov, many fantastic names, and also dancers." An opera has been commissioned from Rodion Shchedrin and will be performed shortly after the theater's opening.
The Mariinsky's fortunes today are inextricably tied to Gergiev, in his twenty-fifth year at the company, and it's surely no coincidence that the opening festivities are planned for the week of Gergiev's sixtieth birthday, on May 2. As of this spring, the Mariinsky cultural complex will comprise the 1860 original theater, the 2006 concert hall and the new Mariinsky II. But the proposed architectural master plan calls for more — a park, an avenue of trees extending all the way from the Rimsky-Korsakov statue in front of the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory to the entrance of Mariinsky II. The plan includes new subway entrances and an underground parking garage. "The governor of Saint Petersburg — which is really the mayor — has seen the master plan," says Diamond. "He likes it, Valery is keen on it — everybody is keen on it. But there has been no time and money to get it done now."
Gergiev claims that the Mariinsky II theater, along with the other Mariinsky spaces, will bring in $144 million a year in ticket sales. "It will be serving hundreds of thousands of people," says the maestro. "It will make Saint Petersburg even more importantly one of the capitals in Europe for culture — certainly for musical culture. Opera, ballet, symphonic music, chamber music. And the Russian tradition is one of the important traditions. Of course, we know the German, Italian, Russian and French musical traditions are the pillars of classical music. And I think it's important that we continue to be successful and to continue to be active and dynamic in Saint Petersburg. I am sure New York, London and Paris will do the same. But every capital has challenges. We just have to find a way to overcome the challenges."
JENNIFER MELICK is managing editor of Symphony Magazine.