Saturday, 4 May 2013

New Mariinsky II Theatre Gala Opening

The new Mariinsky Theatre, or Mariinsky II, St Petersburg, looks fantastic. It sounds fantastic too.

The design concept is so innovative that you should read the architectural specs. Here's a link with lots of photos to Diamond Schmitt Architects site.  More details on the Mariinsky site here. The new building is integrated into the historic urban landscape of the city. There's a rooftop ampitheatre with views across St Petersburg. The old building remains, linked to the new over a canal. Jack Diamond, the architect, says "we have used the elements of the old architecture, which are a masonry base and a metal roof. Instead of a classical portico, we have used great structural glass bay-windows......The public areas have an exuberance and a fun because going to the opera house today is, in a sense, in competition with people who can watch it on television, see it on their computer screen, can have videos and play them at will. The difference is that going to an event is a gregarious activity. And I often think that before the show begins, and during intermission, it is not the musicians who are the performers, it is the audience."

Anything new is bound to enrage but from what we've seen so far, the building is strikingly beautiful. The whole structure seems to glow with light and transparency.  How moth eaten and oppressive the red and gold trappings of traditional theatre seem in comparison! Now the focus is on performance, not performance space. The acoustic is breathtaking. It must be balm to sit and listen in a theatre like this, purpose built for music. Yet references to the past abound, blending clean modern elegance with references to theatre history and Russian culture in particular. The Opening Gala shows a backdrop of the "old" theatre with its Imperial Box.  A group of schoolchildren sing the Ave Maria, their young voices ringing out pure and clear: past, present and future unite in a single image.

Simplicity and extrvagance combine. A solo piano demonstrates the glorious acoustic. Then the stage explodes in a gorgeous tableaux: the opening scene of Boris Gudonov, bells ringing triumphantly. The Boyars, priests and Imperial retinue emerge from the crowd of massed peasants. A moment of sheer theatre! Yet there's no heaviness in this staging.The singing shines, not the costumes, though they're suitably "historic". Naturally, there's a political element to the opening of an extremely important new house like the Mariinsky, funded completely by the state. Yet Vladimir Putin is seen sitting in the orchestra stalls. Perhaps this is shrewd. On the other hand, it says much about the role of cultural heritage in Russia. Does art transcend petty concerns? One should sincerely hope so. The men of the Mariinsky chorus emerge from a backdrop showing the Tsar's box. They look like mafia in their dinner jackets, but the sound of their singing connects to the past, distant and not so  distant.

The new Mariinsky opens out internally, too. Although much has been written about the public face of the building, what's intriguing to theatre people is the backstage technology. This, too, must be state of the art, if the Opening Gala is anything to go by. The Mariinsky Ballet are shown dancing Balanchine against a pristine backdrop that suggests a dance studio. The backdrop them morphs into page after page of "etchings" evoking ballets past. Almost miraculously as the music turns to Carmen, the backdrop transforms into full, naturalistic colour.  Later, the Rite of Spring is recreated in Nicolas Roerich's designs and elements of Diaghilev's choreography. A "curtain" of light descends, and René Pape appears, singing Mefistofele.  This is projection technology at its finest, suggesting new possibilities, just as the advent of electric light did 100 years ago. Vivid changes of scene happen in an instant : no clunky machinery, no interruptions to dramatic flow.

Plácido Domingo sings Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond. His voice isn't what it was but who cares? Everyone loves him, and rightly so. Later, he takes over from Valéry Gergiev at the podium, and sings along from the pit. Anna Netrebko feigns surprise, but we all know she's in on the joke. Netrebko steals the entire show, singing almost non-stop for the last half an hour of the gala, often solo. Netrebko is in superb form: this evening will be one of the great memories of her life. Putin applauds with a grimace, but who cares? Gergiev, the Birthday Boy, throws his arms around her and kisses her. Surrounded by Pape, Domingo, Nikitin, pretty much the whole company, chorus and ballet, Netrebko is absolutely radiant. The girl from Krasnodar will forever be associated with the new Mariinsky.  Watch the full broadcast here, it's superb, and extremely well filmed. Beats the Bolshoi opening gala by leagues.

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