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The Arts

White Nights Festival
Glenn Walters

The month of May once again sees the Russian musical spotlight fall on St. Petersburg, with the opening on May 10 of the city’s 14th annual ‘Stars of the White Nights Festival.’

This year’s festival, held as always under the auspices of the Mariinsky Theater, extends over a stretch of ten weeks and offers a choice of nearly 100 events – operas, ballets and concerts – for the potential delight of audiences that flock to it from both Russia and abroad.

The undisputed star of Stars of the White Nights is Mariinsky artistic and general director Valery Gergiev. Loaded down with numerous duties elsewhere – which currently include the post of principal guest conductor of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and artistic direction of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras, as well as of the Moscow Easter Festival – Gergiev rarely appears on his home podium during the regular season except at opera premieres and other performances of special importance. But when it comes to Stars of the White Nights, Gergiev gives practically his full attention to the Mariinsky, and this year is scheduled to lead more than a quarter of the festival’s events.

Less than 24 hours after winding his marathon of Moscow Easter Festival concerts with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev takes over the Mariinsky’s podium to kick off Stars of the White Nights with Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, the first in a festival operatic series entitled ‘Russian Masterpieces.’

Yefim Bronfman. Photo by Deborah Feingold

Russian music features heavily on this year’s festival program, and its principal focus is the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, played in honor of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth next September 25. All 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies are scheduled for performance, along with four of his works for the stage and a pair of ballets that make use of his music.

Gergiev takes on a lion’s share of the symphonies, leading the Mariinsky Orchestra in Nos. 1-4, 7, 8 and 11-13. For the rest, the festival has engaged a distinguished group of guest conductors: the composer’s son, Maxim Shostakovich for Nos. 14 and 15; the music directors of three major American orchestras, Christoph Eschenbach of the Philadephia Orchestra for No. 5, Esa-Pekka Salonen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for No. 9, and Paavo Jarvi of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for No. 10; and Maris Janssons, principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, for No. 6.

On stage will be Shostakovich’s operas ‘Katerina Ismailova’ (the 1963 revision of what was originally called ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,’ a work that came to grief three decades earlier due to scathing criticism by the Soviet Union’s cultural authorities) and ‘The Nose,’ in the delightfully madcap production seen last month at the Moscow Easter Festival. Also on tap is a concert performance of ‘Moskva-Cheryomushki,’ the composer’s sole venture into the world of operetta. Gergiev leads all three works.

Perhaps the most intriguing item on the festival program is a new production of Shostakovich’s ballet ‘The Golden Age.’ Just this past March, the Bolshoi Theater triumphantly revived the ‘The Golden Age’ in a revision of the 1982 staging by long-time Bolshoi balletmaster Yury Grigorovich. How the Mariinsky version will stack up against Grigorovich’s was still anyone’s guess as of mid- April, when these lines were written, for not a single detail of the production, not even the name of its choreographer, had yet been made public.

This year’s festival also pays honor to Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, with a series called ‘Tchaikovsky Classics’ that includes performances of all four of the composer’s operas currently in the Mariinsky’s repertoire – ‘Eugene Onegin,’ ‘The Queen of Spades,’ ‘Mazeppa’ and the littleknown ‘The Enchantress’ – as well as his three ballets, ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (in the Mariinsky’s painstaking re-creation of its original 1890 production) and ‘The Nutcracker’ (which features the wildly imaginative sets and costumes created five seasons ago by artist Mikhail Shemyakin).

Besides ‘Boris Godunov,’ the festival’s ‘Russian Masterpieces’ series includes five other operas, Mussorgsky’s ‘Khovanshchina,’ Mikhail Glinka’s ‘A Life for the Tsar’ and ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila,’ Alexander Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor,’ and Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov’s ‘The Invisible City of Kitezh.’

Leonidas Kavakos. Photo by Yannis Bournias

Due for performance as well are all of the Mariinsky’s operatic premieres of the 2005-2006 season, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ (in a production originally designed for Moscow’s own Helikon Opera by its artistic director, Dmitri Bertman) and ‘Falstaff’ (as staged with considerable success by the noted theater director Kirill Serebrennikov), Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci’ and Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ Joining them will be two of the current season’s ballet premieres, a re-creation of the nearly-forgotten 19th-century ballet ‘Ondine’ by French choreographer Pierre Lacotte (hailed for his revival at the Bolshoi seven years ago of another equally ancient and neglected work, ‘The Pharaoh’s Daughter’) and a brand-new one-act setting of Nikolai Gogol’s tale ‘The Overcoat,’ staged by young American choreographer Noah D. Gelber to film music of Shostakovich.

Also due for a repeat performance, June 13 to 17, is Richard Wagner’s massive four-part operatic cycle ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ which premiered at the Mariinsky three years ago – in its first complete performance in Russia since before the Bolshevik Revolution – and played in Moscow last June at the Bolshoi.

Guest soloists from abroad include American superstar soprano Renee Fleming, who gives a concert with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra on June 26 and is also scheduled for a ‘Renee Fleming Gala’ on July 10; the formidable German bass, Rene Pape, who appears in Verdi’s opera ‘Don Carlo’ on June 30; and two-time Grammy Award-winning Russian emigre pianist Yefim Bronfman, who, along with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, is due to appear with Gergiev and the orchestra on June 24. As of mid-April, practically no information was available about the casting of festival opera and ballet performances. But it seems almost certain that at least some of the former will include leading lights, both past and present, from the Mariinsky’s vocal roster, while some of the latter will be graced by the theater’s leading ballerinas, Ulyana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva.

A major event at this year’s Stars of the White Nights is the scheduled opening on June 20 of the new Mariinsky Concert Hall. Built on the site of the theater’s workshops and scenery warehouse, that went up in flames three years ago, the new structure will encompass a modern auditorium with a seating capacity of 1,100, but at the same time preserve the original building’s historic facade. Gergiev leads the Mariinsky Orchestra at the hall’s inaugural concert in Shostakovich’s monumental ‘Leningrad’ Symphony (No. 7), a work written to honor the heroism of those who survived and perished in the World War II siege of what is now St. Petersburg.

Ulyana Lopatkina. Photo by Natasha Razina

Another event of special note, scheduled for June 29, is an outdoor performance of ‘Nabucco’ in the dramatic surroundings of the medieval fortress of Ivangorod, located high above the Narva River at the border between Russia and Estonia.

Stars of the White Nights ends on July 19 with a performance of ‘Eugene Onegin,’ after which the Mariinsky is due to resume a regular schedule of performances through August 6. The new season, tentatively set to begin on September 9, will see a closing at year’s end of the Mariinsky’s 145-year-old home premises for desperately needed repair and the modernization of its hopelessly outdated backstage. While the work goes on – for what is now estimated to be a period of 14 months – the Mariinsky will perform on other St. Petersburg stages.

A full schedule of the Stars of the White Nights Festival and ticket information can be found, in Russian and English, at:

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