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Risk and Return

PHILIP KENNICOTT examines the controversy behind the opening of the Mariinsky's new theater, which marks a significant alliance between Russia's cultural and political powers.

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The Mariinsky's two houses, separated by the Kryukov Canal
© Shamukov Ruslan/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis 2013
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Gergiev and Russian president Vladimir Putin
© AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky 2013

Last October, Valery Gergiev appeared at a press conference at the Library of Congress, before a gala celebration of Russian culture that also attracted the Russian ambassador to the United States. As usual, Gergiev was late, but when he swept into the room, the temperature rose, and there was a palpable sense of being in the presence of real star power. And then a reporter asked a difficult question: What do you think of the Pussy Riot situation?

Pussy Riot, for anyone who doesn't follow the internecine and often cruel ways of Russian domestic politics, is a feminist punk-rock group that filmed itself inside a Moscow church, footage that was later used in a song critical of Vladimir Putin. The women were criticizing the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the authoritarian politicians who have run the country as an oligarchy for almost fifteen years. For that, they were arrested, charged with hooliganism, tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison camps.

Gergiev is not a Pussy Riot fan. While most Americans in the culture business would be at least superficially outraged by an artist's imprisonment for his or her beliefs, Gergiev had little sympathy for the young women, citing the gravity of their offense and the emotionally laden ground where it was given — Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished by Stalin in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s with funds largely donated by ordinary citizens. Gergiev's message was profoundly undemocratic: freedom of speech shouldn't be construed as a license to hurt other people's feelings.

Gergiev is now about to open his own cathedral of sorts, a giant addition to the legendary Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. And despite the full-throated cheering in the opera world, it too is dogged by controversy. Historical preservationists are furious at what was destroyed to build it, where it has been sited and its discordantly contemporary architecture. And local citizens are divided about whether it was needed and what it will add to the city. The fact that it got built at all, in a dense and historically rich neighborhood, after a decade of failed attempts and abandoned designs, and at a grand cost estimated to be near $700 million, is something of a miracle. But it's worth remembering that Gergiev the miracle-worker and Gergiev the Pussy Riot skeptic are woven of the same cloth: one doesn't accomplish big things in Russian culture without being closely aligned with power. 

Of course, it was always so. The original Mariinsky Theatre, a pale-green confection studded with columns and rich ornament that opened in 1860, was sponsored by Alexander II and dedicated to his wife, Maria Alexandrova: hence its name, the "Mariinsky." It survived the Bolsheviks, becoming an integral part of the Soviet cultural hierarchy. It sits across a busy street from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory, where a statue of Glazunov reminds visitors of its illustrious line of directors and students, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Nearby is a neighborhood deeply associated with the Silver Age of Saint Petersburg poets, including the home of Alexander Blok. And a brisk walk of a few minutes puts one in the center of the old city, home to Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Nabokov. No part of this 300-year-old city is without some deeply felt site of cultural remembrance, whether of war and suffering, or poetry, music and art. An enigmatic sculpture of a nose on the wall of a nearby building, purportedly the home of Kovalyov in The Nose, reminds passersby of its connection to Gogol, who wrote the comic short story, and Shostakovich, who based an opera on it. Also close by is a well-weathered apartment block that was supposedly the inspiration for the old lady's flat in which the murder that launches Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment takes place.

But it is the loss to the historic fabric of the neighborhood, and the pale, undistinguished modernism of the Toronto-based firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, that rankles Julia Minutina. "They demolished several historical buildings to free the space for the theater," says Minutina, who leads a Saint Petersburg preservation group called Living City. "I think it's a really woeful sight." She's not alone. Russian newspapers have been filled with acrimony about the new building, including news of a petition to have the new structure demolished. Minutina also laments the block-like character of the theater addition and the interruption of views down one of the canals, which the Mariinsky's two theaters now straddle with a glass pedestrian bridge. The building is so big, she points out, that there is no place from which it can be adequately seen. "You can compare it with the historical theater building, which has a square to provide us wonderful perspectives," she says. By contrast, the Mariinsky II, as it is now known, pushes out to the edge of its constrained space, like an object so large it won't fit in the frame of a picture. 

It is indeed aesthetically jarring. Saint Petersburg is a low-slung city with its architectural roots in the Baroque and classical styles of the eighteenth century. Built on a network of canals that integrate the city with the wide expanse of the Neva River, the city seems to float on a web of water, crisscrossed with bridges connecting to pedestrian walkways. The canals are lined with palaces painted in pale colors, many supported by fanciful columns in the shape of human torsos. Contemporary architecture, the worst of it the product of Soviet times, sticks out sorely, usually as a flat expanse of undecorated concrete. Diamond Schmitt's addition to the old Mariinsky is a mass of pale masonry and glass, full of hard edges and industrial in spirit. It is a far cry from an earlier design by the French architect Dominique Perrault, who proposed an eccentric, jewel-like polyhedron that would have been just as out of place, but with the virtue of being architecturally adventurous and forward-looking. The Perrault design, chosen in 2003, was scrapped a few years later, and the Mariinsky went forward with a less distinguished and less challenging box-like form from Diamond Schmitt.

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The new theater
© Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images 2013

In some ways the choice of Diamond Schmitt was controversial on all fronts, sure to alienate cultural conservatives (for being new) and progressives (for being dull) alike. And, as observers of Russian cultural life point out, nothing happens in Saint Petersburg without controversy. "The reactions are divided, and this always happens when you have a building going up," says Anton Fedyashin, director of the Initiative for Russian Culture at American University in Washington, D.C. That shouldn't be surprising, he argues. "Ask the Parisians about the Georges Pompidou Center. After the time, people come to accept it." But Fedyashin also points out that Saint Petersburg is particularly sensitive to change, a remnant of its peculiar history within the larger Russian conglomerate. Founded by Peter the Great as Russia's Window to the West, the city served as the nation's capital until 1918, when it was moved to Moscow. That left Saint Petersburg relatively untouched through most of the twentieth century, for better and worse.

"The Bolsheviks transferred what little money the Soviets had for major urban reconstruction to Moscow," says Fedyashin, which meant major urban "improvement" (and historic devastation) for the inland megalopolis, and slow neglect (but preservation) for Peter's old capital on the Bay of Finland. Because Saint Petersburg was untouched for so long, anything new feels shocking. And the city's preservationists, determined to conserve what history bequeathed, take a hard line against most change. Only a very well connected impresario could break through the local resistance, raise the federal funds and marshal the political support at all levels to create such a radical intervention in the old fabric of Saint Petersburg. Gergiev's portfolio of talent, full of musical, administrative and entrepreneurial skills, is also replete with the gift of political savvy. And that too has inevitably attracted hostility. Government support for the arts and culture in Saint Petersburg (which has a city cultural budget $100 million larger than the entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts) is huge by American standards, but that comes with dangers for those who play the complicated game of wooing government favor. Successful arts leaders must remain close to the government, just as they did in the nineteenth century. Generous government funding is common in Western Europe, too, but there the procedures for funding are more transparent. In Russia, the atmosphere remains imperial, hierarchical, secretive and complex, which leads to rumors, hostilities and wild conspiracy theories. 

The upside, for opera-lovers, is an opera company second to none in the world, and now blessed with a theater capable of the latest and grandest theatrical standards. Gergiev, in interviews, has spoken extensively about using the new Mariinsky building to serve local audiences, introduce new ones to opera and build on the great traditions of the fabled Mariinsky company. But the new building reminds audiences of the strange historical trajectory of opera, in which the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their large, popular bourgeois audiences, may be an aberration, a blip in the longer arc of elitism, wealth and privilege. The Mariinsky II may well be a monument to a dawning age of opera, reborn in authoritarian countries such as China and Russia, in which the art form returns to its hierarchical origins. When Gergiev refused to defend Pussy Riot, speculates one observer, he was simply remaining true to the cultural values that helped him succeed against extraordinary odds — in preserving the Mariinsky during the parlous 1990s, building its international reputation, making its singers synonymous with excellence, and ushering it into its new, oversize home. 

"Gergiev is a product of the Soviet system," says Mark Yoffe, founder and curator of the International Counterculture Archive at George Washington University. "As independent as he is, he is still an artist who carries the Soviet mentality." Russian artists and academics of Gergiev's generation, says Yoffe, look down on the counter-cultural, the pop sensibility, the outsider aesthetics that define some young Russians' Western-leaning, anti-Putin rebellion. They were raised steeped in the classic culture of Russia, which makes them able stewards of that tradition, but very different from the more egalitarian-minded, studiously (and sometimes fatuously) anti-snobs of the Western opera world. And that in turn makes the Mariinsky II a different kind of opera house from anything that has been built in the West in the past three-quarters of a century — a monument to the close alliance of cultural and political power that was frayed and severed in liberal democracies after World War II. spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT is art and architecture critic of The Washington Post.

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