May, June and July 2021 have been three months that were dedicated to the exquisite feast of performances within the framework of XXIX Stars of White Nights Festival. While the three Mariinsky stages have been presenting the best performers of the Mariinsky ballet and opera companies, as well as visiting stars from abroad, three very different premieres of rare operas have been prepared for the audiences to enjoy and savour.
Although the pandemic had altered the preliminary schedule, in 2020-2021 Mariinsky Theatre’s Artistic Director Valery Gergiev has been planning to develop particular operas into fully-fledged premieres. Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, as well as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been tried in concert versions (sometimes even in parts including several acts) on Mariinsky Stage, while full premieres were gradually prepared. And while The Tales of Hoffmann would be a hot piece of news presented to St Petersburg viewers in the end of July (it is now in rehearsal, with up-and-coming American director Daniel Kruglikov leading the process), three other operas received their premieres during the XXIX Festival, during which the unusual summer heat was combined an overwhelming and delightful avalanche of operatic performances.
The new productions that took place during this time were Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans (directed by Aleksey Stepanyuk, conducted by Valery Gergiev), a new version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (directed by Vyacheslav Starodubtsev, conducted by Valery Gergiev) and semi-staged, still awaiting a full premiere production of Léo Delibes’ Lakmé (mise en scenes by Isabelle Partiot-Pieri, conducted by Christian Knapp). All three were quite unusual choices, the rare gems that one does not see in the repertoire of many operatic houses in Europe and the world. It is a special goal of Gergiev, it seems, to bring to public’s attention the operas that they might not have heard of, or that were confined to the knowledge of narrow specialists only. Interestingly, all of them have not been seen on Mariinsky Stage for decades. The Maid of Orleans was last revived at Kirov Theatre in 1945, Tannhäuser was last seen in 1923 before a new production at Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2019 (the new one uses the same creative team, but develops it into a completely different conceptual vision), and Lakmé (generally a very rare guest on modern operatic stages) hasn’t been produced in Mariinsky since its revival in 1931. For the last time, it has been Christian Knapp that has been giving its concert version recitals during the season 2020-2021 and it was for this experienced American conductor to lead the semi-staged premiere in July 2021. And although one might find different connecting links between the three operas, for me it is a very different image of a female substance, a female’s destiny that has been highlighted and artfully put into discussion in these three new productions.
Although it has been the last of the three to have been shown to the audiences (early July 2021), it will be logical to start the line-up of premieres with the most exotic one: Léo Delibes’ Lakmé, that had its premiere at Mariinsky Theatre only a year (1884) after it has been first presented to the French public at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1883). This opera reflects the interest in orientalism that was wide-spread in European society at the end of the 19th century, when artists (painters, writers, composers) tried to re-imagine the unknown ‘East’ (where India could easily be exchanged for Africa) and meetings of the Westerners and locals. That is exactly what Lakmé with its exquisite, unusual, captivating music (Delibes probably used Belgian musicologist Fétis’ research into Indian and world music published at that time) is about. Gérald is a British officer on a visit to India, while Lakmé is the daughter of the Hindu brahmin Nilakantha. Their beliefs, lifestyles and origins are different, but their mutual love brings them together despite all the obstables from both sides, although Lakmé (who is innocent and trusting, like Miranda from The Tempest, but is sensitive and wise when acting within her own milieu) dies in the end after drinking the poison when suspecting that her beloved will leave her. The opera has several fantastic areas (Bell Song and the final parting aria of Lakmé) and duets (Flower Duet with Lakmé’s servant Mallika), and is worth of listening to if only because of them.
The team of director Partiot-Pieri, choreographer Alexander Sergeyev and lighting desinger Vadim Brodsky did a fantastic preliminary job of bringing the bright and buzzing India with its bazaars and perfumed gardens, with its mysteries and sensitivity to the light of our imagination. The costumes were used from other productions, and in the absence of sets the inventive videos were used as the backdrop, and the dances of Indian people in the second act remind us of Mariinsky’s trademark tradition of combining opera and elaborate dance pieces in its productions through centuries. Sopranos Aigul Khismatullina and Olga Pudova will be alternating in the main role (and both are exquisite in making this unknown, exotic woman alive and using the best of their coloratura voices while doing so), while Alexander Mikhailov (his roles also include Lensky and Prince Kurlyatev in Tchaikovsky’s The Enchantress) was very convincing vocally and sweetly fresh and innocent in his performance as a young British officer. Christian Knapp has now mastered this piece that he has helped to be brought to life on Mariinsky stage to perfection, and it was a particular delight to watch him attentively lead singers, dancers and orchestra in this elegant and beautiful production excelling in sensitivity while keeping its intended lightness and exoticism.
The second premiere (it could be seen in the beginning of the Festival, in May 2021) was no less exotic for the Russian audiences, although the general plot of The Maid of Orleans is more or less well-known through other works of art dedicated to this episode in French history. But let us be frank: it is unusual to think that someone like Pyotr Tchaikovsky would be interested in treating this subject, writing his own libretto while using Friedrich Schiller’s drama in Vassily Zhukovsky’s romantic translation (as well as a couple of other sources that added the melodramatic elements into the plot). No, we don’t expect Tchaikovsky to be inspired only by Pushkin and ‘local stories’ (the ballets are the best examples of his pan-European interests), but still this opera has only stayed on Mariinsky stage for two seasons in the 1880s, and was only performed twice in Prague and Tiflis in the composer’s lifetime. And while we know Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades to the point of singing the whole arias from them, that can’t be said of the ‘black horse’ that is The Maid of Orleans. It has been more than 75 years since St Petersburg audiences could see it on Mariinsky stage (and in full version, without cuts dictated by Soviet times in the story dealing with God, mysterious visions and damnation) and surely its premiere was awaited with much anticipation.
It was undeniably for the outstanding Mariinsky mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk that Valery Gergiev intended this production to be a channel. She sang in its concert version performances, and she also appeared in it – but a bit later than her colleagues – when it was fully staged during the Festival. But the role was also a perfect opportunity to shine for such brilliant singers as Yulia Matochkina, Ekaterina Sannikova and an invited guest Ekaterina Gubanova who spent several weeks in St Petersburg rehearsing the title role in this production. The premieres had excellent casts, with ‘crème de la crème’ of the Mariinsky opera troupe singing on different nights. Thus, on the second premiere night (28 May 2021) Ekaterina Gubanova sang Ioanna, Evgeny Nikitin took the role of her father Thibaut d’Arc, Sergey Skorokhodov was a splendid King Charles VII, while his lover Agnès Sorel was performed by beautiful Elena Stikhina. Lionel, the knight that falls in love with Ioanna and is loved by her (an unusual melodramatic turn, and implicitly the cause of the Maid’s death here) is sung by baritone Alexey Markov.
The creative team (director Alexey Stepanyuk, set and costume designer Vyacheslav Okunev, light designer Irina Vtornikova, choreographer Ilya Ustyantsev and video designer Viktoria Zlotnikova) took seriously the genre concept offered by Tchaikovsky in this opera: The Maid of Orleans is a grand-opera and has it sumptuous scenes in Charles’ residence (including an extatic, captivating dance interlude), generously realized mass scenes (including peasants, churchmen, coronation officials) and lyrical passages (mainly involving Ioanna’s operatic monologues and her love scenes with Lionel). Mariinsky has made it a spectacle to enjoy visually as much as musically: dances and coronation, damnation and battles (projected on videos) culminate in a devastating, but spectacular fire where Ioanna is burned alive. Interestingly, here it is Ioanna’s father that betrays her for ‘a good cause’ at the height of her glory, and it is her own doubt whether her feeling for Lionel could be considered ‘sinful’ that leads to her death. Gubanova and Markov are oustanding as two noble and humble lovers who have to part forever, while another stage couple,Stikhina and Skorokhodov, are in con thatrast, passionate and luxuriant in their joy. Paradoxically, it is modest and self-denying love that is forbidden and denied here, while the whole performance evidently invites us to partake in the beauty and glory of earthly pleasures –standing in the contradiction with the historical plot, as the richness of life prevails on stage.
The story of a struggle between permitting oneself to love or staying within the realm of a holy devotion is a bit more complicated, but analysed again (and now the history is again a background in an opera dedicated to love only) in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) that was first staged in Mariinsky in 1874. The 2019 version was more abstractly ‘medieval’ and minimalistically beautiful, giving its due to the canon of legends and literary stories about Tannhäuser (or Heinrich von Ofterdingen, according to Novalis’ take on this story). The premiere on 17 June 2021, although having the same creative team (director Vyacheslav Starodubtsev, set designer Pyotr Okunev, costume designer Zhanna Usacheva, lighting desiger Sergei Skornetsky and video designer Vadim Dulenko) was a completely different, modern take – partly frightening in its vision of determinism and totalitarian rigidity of a human life – on Wagner’s analysis of the nature of love.
In the opera, that gradually reveals the struggle of Tannhäuser (sung on the premiere night by Mikhail Vekua) between the earthly love of Venus (Yulia Matochkina) and heavenly, self-sacrificing love of Elisabeth (Irina Churilova), the world created by Starodubtsev and his team at first resembles a luxirious brothel, and then transforms into some kind of an empty hall devoid of life and full religiously or politically inclined men in black and grey holding red volumes (can one be reminded of Mao Zedong?). Vekua’s world wanderer has to navigate in this gloomy, rigid world, and while the opera’s libretto tells us that it is Elisabeth and her self-denial (culminating in death) that wins, everything that happens in this production contradicts it and shows Venus (a sumptuous Yulia Matochkina with her powerful, creamy voice) constantly re-appearing in hero’s visions (a long red trail connects him and her in one scene) and never letting go. And thus, it seems, it is not totalitarian chasteness, but earthly desire and love impersonated by Venus that seems to win (at least it is partially implied so) in this new world that is far from Wagnerian. Singers, though, are truly excellent: apart from the afore-mentioned trio, baritone Vladislav Kupriyanov excels as Wolfram von Eschenbach, showing another version of self-sacrificial love that seems not to be a winner, but rather a stiffling, but unneeded element of life in this story.
The overview of three premieres shows the variety of directorial takes on unique and rarely performed operas that surprised and stunned audiences during the Stars of White Nights Festival. Mariinsky’s strengths have been burgeoning during the difficult times for arts, and it is a pleasure to see the development of artistic imagination and planning that have resulted in three new performances that will definitely stay in its repertoire. Hopefully, it is sooner rather than later that foreign visitors could see them on Mariinsky’s New Stage, as this theatre deserves to be compared to the best opera houses in Europe and the world in audacity and originality of its art.