Mariinsky Opera

The Mariinsky opera company is famous throughout the world. Its soloists are invited to perform in such top opera houses as La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, in Paris and Vienna, at international music festivals and competitions. The illustrious history of the company covers a period of more than two hundred years, beginning in 1783, when the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre was opened in St Petersburg.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the leading works of world opera were mounted on the Russian stage, as were the first Russian comic operas – Mikhail Sokolovsky’s The Miller, The Wizard, The Trickster and The Matchmaker, Vasily Pashkevich’s Misfortune from Owning a Coach and Yevstignei Fomin’s Orpheus and Eurydice. The first Russian artists also appeared at this time, performing with various degrees of success in both drama and opera. Yakov Vorobyov, Pyotr Zlov, Grigory Klimovsky, Anton Krutitsky, Elizaveta Sandunova and Vasily Samoilov all helped to form the Russian national school of operatic art, with its special emphasis on song and drama.

After long subjection to imported composers, Russian opera by Russians asserted itself in Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). The original language of the music, based on grand choruses and a novel arioso-cum-recitative idiom for narrative and dialogue, determined the nature of future Russian operas. The first performers of Glinka’s works were Osip Petrov, Anna Vorobyova, Maria Stepanova and Lev Leonov.

The history of Russian opera in the first half of the nineteenth century is synonymous with the name of Catterino Cavos, musical director of the Mariinsky Theatre for more than four decades. Bohemian conductor Eduard Nápravník made an important contribution to the development of Russian opera theatre, training new stars and creating a first-class orchestra. Nápravník conducted almost all the Mariinsky premieres from 1863 to 1916, presiding over a galaxy of highly talented singers – Daria Leonova, Fyodor Nikolsky, Yulia Platonova, Mikhail Sariotti, Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, Ivan Melnikov, Fyodor Stravinsky, Yevgenia Mravina and Maria Slavina.

The great masterpieces of Russian classical opera first saw the light of day at the Mariinsky Theatre. Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor, Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, Alexander Serov’s Judith, Rogneda and The Power of Evil, and many of the works of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were premiered on the Mariinsky stage. The greatest creations of Modest MussorgskyBoris Godunov and Khovanshchina – are an indelible part of Mariinsky history. The world premiere of Khovanshchina took place at the theatre in the sets of Konstantin Korovin, with Fyodor Chaliapin singing the part of Dosifei. The Mariinsky Theatre has staged all the operas of Peter Tchaikovsky, including The Oprichnik in 1874 and Iolanta in 1892. The history of The Queen of Spades is forever linked to the names of the first performers of the parts of Lisa and Herman – Medeya and Nikolai Figner.

The repertoire of the Mariinsky Theatre always included the leading works of world opera. The company mounted the Russian premieres of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, Rigoletto, La forza del destino, Aida and Otello, Charles Gounod’s Faust, Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. The Mariinsky was one of the few theatres to stage Richard Wagner’s four-part stage festival play Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety in the early twentieth century.

At the start of the twentieth century, the Mariinsky repertoire reflected the fin-de-siècle quests for a synthesis of music, drama, art and choreography. Designers Konstantin Korovin, Alexander Golovin and Valentin Serov, choreographer Mikhail Fokine and directors Vsyevolod Meyerhold and Fyodor Chaliapin all collaborated on opera productions.

The 1920s and early 1930s witnessed the exciting experiments of the avant-garde and a reinterpretation of the classics. By the late 1930s, however, these radical reappraisals had given way to monumental and ceremonial productions more in keeping with the aesthetics of Socialist Realism.

Conductors Ary Pazovsky, Daniil Pokhitonov, Boris Khaikin and Sergei Yeltsin, directors Vladimir Lossky, Leonid Baratov, Ilya Shlepyanov and Nikolai Smolich, designers Fyodor Fyodorovsky, Alexander Konstantinovsky and Simon Virsaladze all worked at the theatre after the Second World War. The outstanding singers of this period were Sofia Preobrazhenskaya, Nina Serval, Olga Kashevarova, Nadezhda Welter, Olga Mshanskaya, Rimma Barinova, Nikolai Krivulya and Konstantin Laptev.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a return to the Mariinsky’s classical heritage. The theatre also addressed the modern foreign repertoire, mounting productions of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Ferenc Erkel’s Hunyadi László. Irina Bogachova, Galina Kovalyova, Lyudmila Filatova, Boris Shtokolov and Vladimir Atlantov sang at the Mariinsky Theatre in those years.

Yury Temirkanov was principal conductor of the theatre from 1976 to 1988. After staging such twentieth-century operas as Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rodion Shchedrin’s Dead Souls, Temirkanov turned to Russia’s classical heritage – not only as musical director, but also as stage director – and mounted his own versions of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. This period saw the appearance of a new generation of modern artists – Larisa Shevchenko, Yevgenia Gorokhovskaya, Lyubov Kazarnovskaya, Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Nikolai Okhotnikov, Sergei Leiferkus, Alexei Steblyanko and Yury Marusin.

The election of a new principal conductor in the late 1980s ushered in a new age in the history of the Mariinsky opera. Valery Gergiev injected fresh life into the company and opened up new artistic horizons. The opera company staged up to five premieres a season and participated in prestigious international festivals. The Mariinsky closely collaborated with the world’s top opera houses and recorded for the BBC and Philips Classics. The company was represented by a glittering array of new stars – Anna Netrebko, Irina Dzhioeva, Yevgeny Nikitin, Olga Trifonova and Vasily Gerello.

The Mariinsky Theatre marked the turn of the millennium with a new production of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was performed by the company’s young stars under the direction of Georgian director David Doiashvili. In 2003, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was performed in German for the first time by a Russian company at the Mariinsky Theatre.

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