New Mariinsky II Reflects Gergiev’s Focus on Acoustics

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Acoustic test in the new Mariinksy II Theatre, April 16, 2013. Müller-BBM did the sound design for the 2,000-seat hall. (mariinksy.ru)
Early tests reflect Valery Gergiev’s intense focus on the acoustics of the new Mariinksy II Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Müller-BBM did the sound design for the tiered, 2,000-seat space. (mariinksy.ru)
By Gil French

Aside from his seemingly obsessive tendency to over-commit himself, Valery Gergiev – who brings the Mariinsky Orchestra to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 11 and 15 with pianist Denis Matsuev – is an artistic and general director who has his musical priorities in the right place. In planning the new Mariinsky II Theatre (opera house) in St. Petersburg, which opened on May 2, he started with acoustics. Or, as he put it, “Bad acoustics are a non-starter, a killer.”

Mariinsky II outside, designed by Diamond Schmitt (© Danila Shklyar)
Mariinsky II outside, designed by Diamond Schmitt (© Danila Shklyar)

Jack Diamond, the Toronto architect whose firm built the hall (similar to the Four Seasons Centre opera house in Toronto, which the architectural firm Diamond Schmitt finished in 2006), added, “The hall is all wood and plaster, with only an edge of color, and driven by acoustics, so that all attention is on the stage.” (For more information, click here.)

Designed by Müller-BBM near Munich, the acoustics in the 2,000-seat hall are true from treble to bass, with excellent balance between the singers and pit orchestra. The orchestra pit, which can hold 120 players with none under the proscenium, can be raised and lowered to obtain the best sound levels for each production.

Mariinksy I, built in 1860, needs renovation (www.mariinsky.ru)
Mariinsky I, built in 1860, needs renovation (www.mariinsky.ru)

Why a Mariinsky II? The original Mariinsky Theatre, built in 11 months in 1860 for Alexander II’s wife, Maria, is in serious need of renovation inside and out.  Also, it puts serious constraints on modern productions. All reconstruction and storage of sets is off-site. There is no off-stage rehearsal space when a production is rehearsing on stage. And there is no space for children’s operas and educational programs, an arch-priority for Gergiev. As he put it, they are not the company’s big-ticket earners, but what sells out first every season? Not subscriptions with big-name stars but the family subscription series. In fact, at the opening programs I was amazed not only by the number of high schoolers but also by the number of elementary school students. (The fact that Mariinsky [I] is still in regular use for ballet and opera – including Russian staples like Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila – complicates the prospect for its renovation.)

Mariinsky II, costing $730 million, was funded by the state government, thanks to two close opera-loving friends of Gergiev who subsequently became Russia’s finance and economic ministers.

Mariinsky II Theatre from the stage (Diamond Schmitt Architects)
Mariinsky II Theatre from the stage (Diamond Schmitt Architects)

The auditorium is understated, like the Four Seasons Centre, with undistracting gray and beige colors and blond wood. Its volume is slightly larger but it still feels warm and intimate, with a tiered floor for clear viewing. But oh, the stage! Larger than the Met’s and more versatile, with a turntable and 16 immense wagons (gigantic flat surfaces) that can move up to 30 tons of scenery each and be shuffled to nearly every backstage and under-stage area, allowing setup of multiple sets at once. The backstage area alone, consuming several city blocks, makes the Met’s seem small. Add rehearsal spaces for singers, chorus, orchestra, and Mariinsky’s first-rate ballet troupe, plus a rooftop amphitheater (used in Gergiev’s White Nights Festival), and it’s no wonder President Vladimir Putin himself showed up for the dedication.

Mariinsky II foyer (Mariinsky.ru)
Mariinsky II foyer (Mariinsky.ru)

The total size of Mariinsky II is three times larger than Mariinsky I. Handsome and functional as the hall and backstage areas are, the wide but narrow lobby and balconies are cramped, as is the wearying 155-step winding staircase to the bar-snack area and rooftop during intermissions. Seven stories of backlit opal look like cheap plastic, especially when accented by small chunks of Swarovski crystal hanging on countless wires, giving the atrium the ambience of the notions area of a department store.

The “designed by computer” exterior is crammed right against sidewalks on three sides, with just a walkway separating it from a narrow canal and Mariinsky I on the fourth. As a result, the hall looks like a white elephant in this city, which Gergiev described as “one of the earth’s few unique wonders (like Paris, Venice, or Jerusalem) that one dare not abuse.”

The first concert was for artists, at Gergiev's request. (Mariinsky.ru)
The first concert was for artists, at Gergiev’s request. (Mariinsky.ru)

Aside from acoustics and architecture, Gergiev had another priority right. The night before the invitation-only gala, he held the actual (unadvertised) opening for an audience of his choice: all those artists who had performed at the Mariinsky, many of whom had been dismissed, alienated, or banished. His true opening performance was a welcome-back for them, reflecting the “open to all” intent of the architects and planners.

Gergiev’s intent for the opening gala was similar. He invited all those who helped him achieve his goal of the past 25 years (he became Mariinsky director in 1988) to make Russia’s greatest composers and performers known around the world. Pianists Matsuev and Mikhail Petrenko, basses Ildar Abdrazakov and Rene Pape, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, mezzo-sopranos Olga Borodina and Ekaterina Semenchuk, and violist Yuri Bashmet were but some of the stars in the 23 operatic, instrumental, solo, and ballet selections.

Good thing I didn’t know who most of them were ahead of time (English programs were not provided to the more than 40 critics from Asia, Europe, and the Americas); they were mostly dreadful. Even Anna Netrebko was hardly at her best. Only Alexei Markov was in stunning voice with Robert’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Iolantha. And in Siegmund’s aria from Die Walküre, Placido Domingo proved that his voice is definitely over the hill. Why was he here? Because when he sang here in January 1992, just two weeks after the Soviet Union was dissolved, he joined Gergiev in his effort to bring Russian music and stars to the world.

Valery Gergiev (© V. Baranovsky)
Valery Gergiev (© V. Baranovsky)

One doesn’t attend galas for sterling performances, certainly not at Mariinsky, where chaos reigned. Gergiev focused on personal rather than organizational matters, using his 60th birthday (May 2, gala night) and his 25th anniversary at Mariinsky to include everyone who helped him achieve his goal.

Iolanta, a lovely, charming, almost miniature fairy tale, was not the opera with which to show off the tremendous potential of Mariinsky II’s stage. Done mostly in black and white, a cabin revolved on a turntable, showing different rooms. That was it, aside from lasers that projected forest animals on a scrim. In fact, garish lights, like those around the proscenium during the gala, seem to be the only new “toy” the company’s production team has yet learned to use. What a contrast to the spectacular production of a new Philip Glass opera seen at the opening of Linz’s new theater two weeks earlier (see “New Glass Opera Marks Opening of Grand Linz House” under “International” on this website).

The worst performance was at Mariinsky I with Domingo, Semenchuk, and the blasting Maria Guleghina in Verdi’s Nabucco, with baton-twirling slaves, an army that did everything but the can-can, and Cecil B. DeMille sets.

Gergiev with orchestra in Mariinsky-II (© V.Baranovsky)
Gergiev with orchestra in Mariinsky-II (© V.Baranovsky)

The best new theater performances (May 2-4) were by Mariinsky’s sterling ballet company. The soloists are not great leapers, but the soundness of their ensemble is remarkable. In Balanchine’s Jewels, mechanical sections were polished to perfection, and poetic sections soared. When Gianandrea Noseda (another loyalist, and the company’s first non-Russian principal guest conductor) was in the pit for Bizet’s Symphony in C, the orchestra’s sheer precision and buoyancy seemed to put the corps into exhilarating overdrive. And when Gergiev conducted Ravel’s Bolero, the orchestral charge gripped even the most jaundiced critic, as a seductress on a table drove an enormous C-shaped row of tango-dressed males mad, one by one by one.

Bolero began with a glaring solo wind error; it had another midway; and the emotional finish, as the men covered and crushed the woman with their arms, was ruined by a gong smash one beat after the final chord. When one says “the Mariinsky Orchestra,” one must ask, “But what players?” With 180 musicians, it resembles the Dresden State Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic, all large enough to perform opera, ballet, and a concert the same evening. To my ears, the ballet orchestra was the thinnest; the opera orchestra had better players but has yet to find the right level in the pit; and the concert orchestra was the best.

But that too was a matter of acoustics. The 1,200-seat hall has a weird shape – narrow, long, and sloped like a galleon – made entirely of wood. But here, even from an awful seat, the sound was fabulous. As Gergiev said, acoustics come first. And now he has a superb hall in which to record. In fact, he is redoing a complete Shostakovich symphony cycle there, and his more recent opera recordings were made there. 

The concert was one I’ll never forget. It started at 10:40 p.m. (40 minutes late), with people still crawling over entire rows to find their seats – the only time I have ever seen literally every seat filled! Violist Bashmet sounded wonderfully warm in a Mozart Adagio. Kavakos and Gergiev both were gripping and elegant in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. What a bass sound, with only four string basses!

After intermission, unannounced, out came Domingo with Gergiev. Domingo spoke briefly and conducted the Overture to La forza del destino – no orchestral balance but a terribly exciting outcry from the heart. A technically perfect but emotionally rigid Vadim Repin followed in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Enter Matsuev for Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. From the crystal delicacy of the introduction to piano-shaking thunder, he and Gergiev tied the whole set of variations together so tightly that I burst into tears with the relief of the 18th variation. For the very first time, I experienced the Russian in Rachmaninoff. Encore: Matsuev’s jazz take on Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” but one only a classically-trained player steeped in Rachmaninoff could have done, ending with two measures of “Happy Birthday” to Gergiev. 

Not done yet, Gergiev’s players were beyond panache in Rodion Shchedrin’s 15-minute Mischievous Folk Songs, a naughty, jazzy train-wreck of a piece complete with Mexican accents. Where else but in Russia can you get out of a concert, refreshed and exhilarated, at ten before two in the morning?

Gergiev later confessed the orchestra hadn’t rehearsed the Shchedrin for months – and some players had never done it. And that’s the state of affairs at Mariinsky: a distinctly non-western ethos with wonderful priorities but probably not mine or yours. When they’re bad, they’re very very bad, but when they’re good, they’re unbeatable.

Should you plan a visit to St. Petersburg, be sure to check out the Mariinsky Theatre’s website, http://www.mariinsky.ru/en. The number of events – operas, ballet, and orchestra – is astounding, and tickets can be purchased online.

Gil French has been concert editor of American Record Guide since 2005, was midday classical music host on public radio for 15 years, and has reviewed classical concerts and CDs for various publications on a steady basis since 1990.

Note: A version of this article was originally published in American Record Guide, Sept./Oct. 2013.