Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Visit to London, July/August 2009

St. Petersburg — capital of the Russian Empire for over 200 years since 1713 — is home to the Mariinsky theatre, whose opera and ballet companies date their founding back to Catherine the Great in 1783. The city lost its status after the Russian Revolution, and the theatre lost its name. The previous name honoured a royal patron, and during Soviet times it became the Kirov, honouring a Bolshevik revolutionary. During the last twenty years, however, it has reverted to its old name under music director Valery Gergiev, and stepped more firmly on the international scene. This summer they brought to London the works of some great composers: Wagner’s Ring, and three great full-length ballets (two Tchaikovsky, one Prokofiev), along with a Balanchine triple bill. Perfect. At least it might have been.

They started with the Ring, a terrific undertaking that they galloped through in four consecutive days. No one else does this — other companies insert a day or two of rest in between the four operas — and even the indefatigable Valery Gergiev was tiring towards the end. But it’s not just the music — the whole thing was under-rehearsed, and we were essentially given a dress rehearsal, despite the unusually high ticket prices. Tales of vodka flowing backstage may not have been true, but I wouldn’t blame them if they did take a tipple or two under such pressure.

Wagner’s operas are a new departure for the Mariinsky, but the ballet is a different matter. The three full-length ballets they performed: Romeo and JulietSwan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are all in their standard repertory. But the productions are from the Soviet era, and the first one in particular is more pantomime than classical ballet, lacking the naturalistic staging that audiences expect and the music demands. The two Tchaikovsky ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty allow more in the way of set dances, and the female solos can be thrilling when danced at speed, but here they were danced at half speed, so that each one became a series of poses. This might work with an audience unused to first-rate ballet, but to one familiar with our own Royal Ballet, it doesn’t work at all. Some soloists seemed to expect stronger applause than they received, and the company continued taking curtain calls at the end while many of the audience left for home. Only the Balanchine programme was successful, but that was because the Balanchine Trust keeps a tight control on the staging and performance. If they dared to do what they did for the Sleeping Beauty under the baton of Pavel Bubelnikov they could well lose their performance rights.

Last year Valery Gergiev conducted Sleeping Beauty in a concert performance at the Proms, and it was simply terrific. He knows very well what it should sound like, and slowing it down for the soloists not only ruins the music, but the solos themselves. If the dancers can’t dance to Tchaikovsky’s music at normal speed then they could do something else — like Don Quixote — that is musically much easier. But it’s not just the solos; the ballet has sublime moments, such as the journey to the sleeping palace, involving no dance, yet they were boringly conducted, and there was no comparison to Gergiev’s concert performance last year at the Proms. Since the great conductor is music director of both opera and ballet he has the clout to change their patterns of behaviour, and make the Mariinsky worthy of its fine pedigree. On present form it is not, and despite some notable individual performances, the overall effect was disappointing. The city of St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great, and he would surely not have put up with companies that ought to be able to compete with the best in the world but fail to do so.

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