After fourteen years of complementing post-Soviet Russia’s recovery from communism, one gets the feeling that the artistic achievements of St Petersburg’s premiere arts institution are wavering. Certainly this is not for lack of ambition. In the 2005-2006 season the Mariinskii presented several new opera productions – Verdi’s Nabucco and Falstaff, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, as well as new ballet offerings.
Although all of these works added something to this year’s White Nights Festival, for the first time in a while no new productions appeared during the festival itself. The reasons might not be difficult to imagine. The much discussed construction of a new theater was planned to have coincided with the original Mariinskii’s closure and renovation for about a year and a half. Perhaps general director Valery Gergiev did not want to launch anything new outside of his theater’s major stage spaces. Or, perhaps more realistically, globalization has caught up with the Mariinskii in full and hindered its ability to feature choice artists in the lucrative summer festival season. Top Russian artists like Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina, and Vladmir Galouzine almost never appear there now, favoring Western celebrity (Netrebko recently began the process of acquiring Austrian citizenship, to be accused of treason by some of her countrymen). This phenomenon is reaching all the way down the roster. The fine baritone Evgenii Nikitin was absent in France all summer, depriving St. Petersburg’s residents and ever increasing summer tourist population of his great talent. Others were in and out. Gergiev himself disappeared to London for much of the summer, in what seems to be a pattern of increasingly long absences from Russia’s imperial capital.
Illness claimed some of the best talent. Galouzine, who despite his international commitments was to appear in a solo concert and as Canio in Pagliacci, had to limit his performances to one Nessun dorma sung as an encore to what was supposed to have been his concert. Indeed, without him Pagliacci was cancelled altogether, leaving a suddenly improvised revival of the popular but lightweight Il Viaggio a Rheims in its place. Mikhail Kit dropped out of this year’s Ring Cycle, adding to its generally disappointing roster (from which we can safely exclude the beautiful Sieglinde of Mlada Khudolei, Mikhail Petrenko’s stentorian Fafner and Hagen, and Olga Sergeeva’s radiant Brunnhilde). The Mariinskii’s chronic problem of presenting foreign talent was also in evidence. Despite Renee Fleming’s appearance for a recital (made especially attractive by its beautiful encores), Rene Pape (the other Rene?) was sorely missed in one of his newest roles, Phillip II in Don Carlo.
There were some occasions to enjoy newer talent ? Vladimir Gorshkov, Vasilii Gerello, Olga Savova, Daniil Shtoda, and Olga Guryakova all acquitted themselves well in Verdi?s Falstaff, Don Carlo, and La Forza del Destino, and Ekaterina Semenchuk made for a fine Carmen and Preziosilla — but the heft of previous festivals was notably absent. Vladimir Ognovenko’s distinguished first appearance after many years in the old but as yet unsurpassed Andrei Tarkovskii production of Boris Godunov (which includes the now – at least in Russia – politically incorrect Polish Act) could not deliver sufficient relief.
The new productions from last season that resurfaced during the summer were a mixed bag. Kirill Serebrennikov?s Falstaff appeared to be set in 1950s America, complete with a drive-in movie theater as the set for Act III. Why this needed to be enhanced with devils whose major distinction from humans is their BDSM gear I cannot imagine. Similarly, placing the role-appropriate frame of Viktor Chernomortsev in a bubbly bathtub might suit his character?s Act II appearance, but thanks to what one hopes was only a technical flaw the audience saw more of the baritone than it probably needed to. Nevertheless, Chernomortsev’s vocal and physical stature helped him make a memorable impression in the opera’s title role. Gerello’s Ford vaulted the performance to imperial heights, as did his Rodrigo in Don Carlo and Don Carlo (how confusing opera is) in Forza. His fine singing makes any performance worthwhile, though one can only wonder how long it will be before he, too, becomes too popular and well paid in the West to return home much.
The other new Verdi offering, Nabucco, disappointed more than thrilled. After making the audience wait for about 40 minutes (prompting one audience member to start chanting “Boring!, Boring!” in loud English), Gergiev drove the orchestra too fast for real enjoyment. Dmitrii Bertman’s production bent space in a weird way and was literally too beige to excite anyone. Nikolai Putilin’s masterful singing helped the performance (as it did in Borodin’s Prince Igor this summer), but Maria Guleghina, despite her foreign renown, shrieked her way through the role of Nabucco’s mean daughter Abigaile and added to that effect with weird Xena Warrior Princess-style affectations (we admit and hope that they might not have been her choice). Added to Irina Gordei’s forced Liza and Leonora, she made for some disappointing Verdi. Avgust Amonov and Akhmed Agadi did not do much better as their suitors and others in various operas.
The Mariinskii has announced that the original theater will not close during the construction of the new theater after all. The company is taking is Ring Cycle to the Metropolitan Opera most of next July, but we can only hope that next year’s festival will be more stimulating than this year’s.