Flocking to its palatial halls from every corner of the globe, generations of audiences have long sought to witness the glory of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Staggered as much by the majesty its architecture as by the excellence of its repertoire, however, tourists and aficionados alike easily overlook the Mariinsky’s hidden influence on the Russian identity.
Long predating its modern prominence is the foundational role the Mariinsky has played in sculpting Russian society. A cornerstone of the birth, growth, and spread of Russia’s earliest operatic and ballet communities, it has for centuries defined not only Russia’s artistic identity, but the identity of Russia as a nation as well.
St. Petersburg’s Operatic and Ballet Traditions
By the 17th and 18th centuries, opera and ballet had established themselves as popular attractions for the Russian elite. With both mediums having originated in Italy, the Russian aristocracy regularly hired European companies to perform at state events and sent their court composers to study under Italian maestros[i].
It was not until the reign of Catherine the Great, however, that opera became a permanent fixture in the Russian artistic community. Having herself written several librettos, Catherine II held a deep appreciation for the arts – a perspective she sought to reflect in the Russian courts[ii]. Proclaiming that “a Russian theatre is needed so that it exists not just for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas,” Catherine established a state theatre committee to “direct plays and music” through a 1793 decree[iii]. Seeking to create a theater in the European model, she staffed the new committee with talented Italian composers and performers[iv].
Following this declaration, the Russian government erected a series of magnificent theatres to host Russia’s burgeoning music and performing arts community. The first of these was the Bolshoi Stone Theatre (Большой Каменный Театр). Designed by Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi, the Bolshoi housed the newly formed Russian Opera Company alongside a rotation of Italian and French troupes. As the performing arts continued to gain popularity, two new theaters – the Circus and Alexandrinsky Theatres – were opened to house the growing Russian circus and dramatic companies, respectively.
By the mid 1800s, the Bolshoi mainly served as the performance hall of the Russian Ballet Company. As a result, the Opera was left without a designated facility, forced to share the stages of the Circus and Alexandrinsky theatres. When a fire destroyed the Circus Theatre in 1859, however, the Russian Opera Company found itself in need of a new home.
From this necessity, the Mariinsky Theatre (Мариинский Tеатр) was born.
Building the Mariinsky
Named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Tsar Alexander II, the Mariinsky would far surpass the majesty of its predecessors and come to revolutionize the Russian operatic and ballet communities[v].
The daunting task of building the Mariinsky fell to Russian-Italian architect Alberto Cavos, who had led renovations on earlier Russian performance halls and was himself the son of Catarino Cavos, a legendary Russian opera composer. Well known for paying close attention to both stylistic and auditory detail, Cavos designed his buildings to be not only visually, but acoustically grand. Describing his previous work on the Bolshoi, for example, he stated that the theatre “is constructed as a musical instrument” rather than simply a physical structure[vi].
This prioritization of both visual and acoustic beauty was apparent in his design for the Circus Theatre’s successor. Mirroring Cavos’s work on the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky lacked columns or a cupola ceiling, opting instead for an acoustically optimal horseshoe shape with a flat ceiling. Striving for intricate visual beauty, moreover, he chose to build the new theatre in a neoclassical architectural style, while opting for a grand, neo-byzantine interior[vii].
Interestingly, although Cavos constructed many of the Mariinsky’s architectural elements from scratch – including its intricate fringed chandelier, which he fully designed himself – he also incorporated remnants of the Circus theatre into the new design, largely at the request of Tsar Alexander II. Enrico Franciolli’s famous ceiling mural, for instance, was transferred into the Mariinsky from its predecessor; the Circus Theatre’s original façade and stone infrastructure, moreover, were repaired and then used in the new building[viii],[ix].
The Mariinsky’s Early Operatic History
The Mariinsky’s monumental architecture was rivaled only by the significance of its productions – from its earliest years, the Mariisnky Theatre bore witness to a fundamental transformation in the Russian artistic community. Although opera in Russia had previously been dominated by Italian composers, the Mariinsky was unique, according to Robert Lyall, General Director Emeritus of the New Orleans Opera, in that “the core of its repertoire was truly Russian.”[x] Early productions were both composed by, and based on the source materials of, Russian writers[xi]. This marked a stark divergence from the theatre’s historic peers; the Mariinsky’s initial emphasis on Russian artistic might was a harbinger of the central role it would play in the Russian operatic tradition for centuries to come.
Under the direction of conductor Konstantin Lyadov, the Russian Opera Company christened the theater with its 1860 performance of Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. Having premiered at the Bolshoi in 1836, this opera was – and still is – widely regarded as the first truly Russian musical work, as well as the country’s first opera to be known and performed internationally[xii]. Grounded in Russian tradition, folklore, and identity, it was arguably the first Russian opera to truly and fundamentally separate from an industry previously driven by European motifs. In this, the inaugural performance of A Life for the Tsar was a pivotal moment in the development of a unique Russian operatic style, propelling the country towards the development of its own burgeoning artistic identity. thus, its performance at the Mariinsky was in some ways an analogy for the theatre itself – a quintessentially Russian opera, performed in a quintessentially Russian opera house.
While A Life for the Tsar debut predated the Mariinsky’s construction, its performance at the Mariinsky would set the stage for what would ultimately become the Mariinsky’s status as an incubator for Russian opera. In the half-century following the Mariinsky’s inaugural performance, many of Russia’s most renowned operas debuted on its stage. Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the most recorded Russian opera in history,[xiii] made its world premiere on January 27th, 1874[xiv], and the most internationally recognized Russian opera by modern standards, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, debuted in 1890[xv]. This fifty-year stretch of performances – which the Mariinsky itself refers to as a “new, glorious era in [our] history”[xvi] – occurred under the direction of Eduard Napravnik, who succeeded Lyadov as Principal Conductor in 1863.
Ballet Arrives at the Mariinsky Theatre
Opera was not the Mariinsky’s only artistic attraction, however. By the late 1800s, the Bolshoi had fallen into disrepair, no longer suitable for the large-scale performances of its younger years. In response, Ivan Vzevolozhosky, Director of the Imperial Theatres, transferred Russia’s Imperial ballet to the Mariinsky in 1885, one year prior to the Bolshoi’s condemnation. This transition marked the beginning of Russian Ballet’s “golden age” and ushered a host of legendary ballerinas and ballets into the Mariinsky’s performance hall[xvii].
For instance, Pierina Legani, a renowned Italian Ballerina, made her Russian debut at the Mariinsky on December 17th, 1893; amazed by her technique, the audience stopped the show to insist that she repeat a particularly breathtaking routine[xviii].
Just as with its operatic playbill, the Mariinsky’s ballet repertoire was marked by a distinctly Russian flair. The debuts of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (January 3, 1890) and The Nutcracker (December 18, 1892) occurred during this golden age, as well as the 1895 revival of Swan Lake, which, despite its initial showing at the Bolshoi garnering negative critical reception, received international renown after being re-choreographed in part by Marius Petipa, the director of the Mariinsky’s ballet company[xix].
Conclusion – Sculpting the Russian Identity
With time, the Mariinsky would evolve alongside the Russian nation. With the theatre’s rapid accession to prominence on both the Russian and international stages, architects quickly sought to match its reputational growth with physical expansion. In 1884, architect Viktor Schröter renovated the audience hall, extending its side wings and audience foyers alongside a replacement of the building’s wooden rafters with steel and concrete. Shortly thereafter, in 1885, he added to a three-story wing onto the Mariinsky’s lefthand side to accommodate new rehearsal rooms and theatre workshops, as well as modernized logistical facilities. Many of these reconstructions have endured well into the theatre’s modern era; the auditorium, for instance, has remained virtually unchanged since its 1884 renovation[xx]. Through the Soviet period and into the modern era, the theatre underwent more renovations and, ultimately, witnessed a shift towards a more western operatic and ballet repertoire.
Despite these changes to its physical appearance or playbill, however, the theatre’s legacy of forging Russian’s artistic identity remains as vivid as ever. Having hosted the debuts of Russia’s pivotal operas and ballets, the Mariinsky went far beyond being simply a performance hall – by giving a stage to now-legendary Russian operas and ballets, it bore witness to the birth of uniquely Russian performance, separate from the European domination that had characterized opera and ballet popular in Russia’s previous theatres. That is, it gave rise to a new, burgeoning artistic community whose essence was both by Russians and of Russia. Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades (discussed above) is a case in point – based on the novella of the same name by legendary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Tchaikovsky’s opera was distinctly and thoroughly Russian in both both its style and story. Thus, its performance provided audiences with something far deeper than did operas from Italy: it provided them with a sense of Russian identity and pride projected vividly on stage, encapsulated by the work of a burgeoning class of Russian artists who committed to taking their work far beyond the European model.
Therefore, by lending its stage to these distinctly Russian performances, the Mariinsky cemented its role not only as a powerful engine of transformation for the international operatic and ballet communities; it fundamentally altered the nature of the Russians themselves, assisting in the transformation of Russia as a nation, identity, and people.
- [i] Lyall, Robert. 2022. Interview by author. New Orleans, January 21, 2022.
- [ii] Ibid.
- [iii] Mariinsky Theatre. N.d. “Mariinsky Theatre.” Accessed January 15, 2022. https://www.mariinsky.ru/en/about/history/mariinsky_theatre/
- [iv] Ibid.
- [v] SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM. n.d. “Mariinsky Theatre.” Accessed January 20, 2022. http://www.saint-petersburg.com/buildings/mariinsky-theatre/
- [vi] Technology Trends. 2016. “Alberto Cavos – Bolshoi Theatre (Moscow).” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.primidi.com/alberto_cavos/bolshoi_theatre_moscow
- [vii] SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM. n.d. “Mariinsky Theatre.”
- [viii] Ibid.
- [ix] Jando, Dominique. N.d. “Russia’s First National Circus.” Circopedia: The Free Encyclopedia of the International Circus. Accessed January 19, 2022. http://www.circopedia.org/Russia’s_First_National_Circus
- [x] Ibid.
- [xi] Lyall, Robert. 2022. Interview by author. New Orleans, January 21, 2022.
- [xii] Greenberg, Robert. 2019. “Music History Monday: A Life for the Tsar.” December 9, 2019. Accessed January 15, 2022. https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-life-for-the-tsar/
- [xiii] Theatre in Paris. 2020. “Boris Godounov – Opera Bastille.” Accessed January 20. 2022. https://www.theatreinparis.com/show/boris-godounov
- [xiv] Mariinsky Theatre. 2012. “Boris Godunov.” Accessed January 15, 2022. https://www.mariinsky.ru/en/playbill/playbill/2012/10/23/1_2000/
- [xv] Galayda, Anna. 2017. “5 Russian Operas that every cultured person should know and see.” October 13, 2017. Accessed January 20, 2022. https://www.rbth.com/arts/326394-5-russian-must-see-operas
- [xvi] Mariinsky Theatre. N.d. “Mariinsky Theatre.” Accessed January 15, 2022. https://www.mariinsky.ru/en/about/history/mariinsky_theatre/
- [xvii] Marius Pepita Society. N.d. “About Pepita.” Accessed January 19, 2022. https://petipasociety.com/about/
- [xviii] Marius Pepita Society. N.d.. “Pierina Legani.” Accessed January 19, 2022. https://petipasociety.com/pierina-legnani/
- [xix] Green, Aaron. 2018. “History of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: The History of Tchaikovsky’s Great Ballet.” March 11, 2018. Accessed April 19, 2022. https://www.liveabout.com/history-of-tchaikovskys-swan-lake-724173
- [xx] SAINT-PETERSBURG.COM. n.d. “Mariinsky Theatre.”