While the 2020 Festival programme was shortened due to pandemic restrictions that are still functioning in many countries of the world, the Stars of White Nights 2021 seemed to include two or three festivals at once, lasting from May 2021 to mid-August 2021. The summer was very special this year: urban trees and lawns changed their attires from lilac to jasmine and peonies, and then to July’s roses and phloxes, as the unprecedented heat tried the patience of many city dwellers.
The Festival presented its unending reaches that succeded each other in a varied flow. Firstly, there was the 2nd International Piano Festival with Dmitry Shishkin, Alexei Volodin, Seong-Jin Cho, Denis Matsuev, Jan Lisiecki and others performing at Mariinsky Concert Hall, where all five Beethoven concertos were played in succession on various evenings. Interestingly, the new chamber hall also opened in June, with free half-an-hour ‘encore’ concerts performed after the main ones.
One of the most famous and beloved opera stars of the world didn’t disappoint and spent an entire week in St Petersburg, revealing different sides of his talent and personality to the audiences. Placido Domingo became part of the Festival in three guises: performing leading part in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, conducting Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and venturing into authentic Spanish tradition with the evening of zazuelas (a historic genre dating back to 17th century that is a mix between comic opera and operetta) conducted by Jordi Bernacer. Domingo also attended several other Mariinsky shows– for instance, he listened to Natalia Muradymova, Vladimir Galouzine and Irina Churilova giving an excellent performance of Puccini’s Turandot in the colourful and inventive production diirected by Charles Roubaud. Placido Domingo loves coming to St Petersburg and his affection is returned by the audience. Singers involved in performances fearuting him as a performer or conductor commented on how they loved working with the Maestro and made a special note of his unique personality.
There was a lot of ballet at the Festival. World known dancers such as Diana Vishneva, Viktoria Tereshkina, Vladimir Shklyarov, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Xander Parish, Kimin Kin, Maria Khoreva and many others appeared in classic shows – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire, Raymonda and many others, while also taking part in special gala events dedicated to specific dancers. American-born Gavriel Heine who knows Mariinsky’s ballet troupe exceedingly well, often conducted these ballets: he was in the pit on the opening night in May Swan Lake, with Shklyarov and Tereshkina starring in it. It was amazing to see to what extent St Petersburg ballet aficionados loved their etoiles: the fingers of both hands were not enough to count the applause rounds after some ballets, with stars always ready to oblige and appearing at the avant-scene smiling to the cheering fans. Future stars also graced the Mariinsky stage this summer: young graduates of the Vaganova Ballet Academy gave several performances in June.
Opera scene was also extremely varied during these three months. The most memorable evenings were so many it is difficult to mention them all. Those that stand out in memory are the revival of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Boris Godunov with Mikhail Petrenko appearing in the leading part and the legendary Olga Borodina reprising Marina Mnisek’s role (she sang it at the premiere in 1990, with Irina Brown directing the transferral of the opera from Covent Garden where Tarkovsky initially staged it). Additionaly, there was Verdi’s La forza de destino conducted by Mikhail Sinkevich and starring Pavel Yankovsky, Hovhannes Ayvazyan, Tatiana Serjan and Ekaterina Semenchuk, dream-like, white-clad Strauss’ Salome channeling the amazing Elena Stikhina, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades featuring Yusif Eyvazov’s debut as Herman, and Olga Borodina’s debut as the Countess, and Verdi’s Don Carlo with a star-studded cast including Migran Agadzhanyan as Don Carlo, Vladislav Sulimsky as Rodrigo, Ekaterina Gubanova as scheming Princess Eboli, and Ildar Abdrazakov as the gloomy and cruel Philip II. Three opera premieres mentioned in another RAC article that was publihed earlier this summer were also the highlights of the Festival, and they have now become part of the Mariinsky Theatre’s repertoire to be seen again soon.
The Festival did not fail to fascinate to the very end, as another opera premiere was being prepared in July. It was Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann based on three various novellas of the German writer. Its director, the Russian-speaking American Daniel Kruglikov, came to St Petersburg straight from New York and spent a busy month of rehearsals at the Mariinsky. Kruglikov’s background lies mainly in film direction and his latest works include his first feature film Drita (2019) that won several accolades, and Kilometer 4 (2021) that was part of this year’s Festival de Cannes. In coming to St Petersburg Kruglikov rediscovered his cultural and family roots, as both of his parents studied at St Petersburg Conservatory. Working on opera was important for the young film director as he had to re-define how time functions in music and in opera, particularly. Daniel Kruglikov collaborated with a French actor and painter Ymanol Perset who did set and costume designs for the production. For both the task was to preserve the spirit of Offenbach’s music and to find the way to express its tragic and comic qualities, but they re-imagined the whole opera in a modern way. It had to be in one location, as it was important to change the sets quickly during the performance.
The director’s idea was to situate the opera in a mental institution called The Heartbreak Hotel (not sure if allusions to Presley’s song are included in this case). Hoffmann is one of the inmates, and thus his tales are his reminiscences. His heart has been broken too many times by different women who turned out not to be different from what he imagined them to be. Kruglikov evidently modernises the whole opera, but does not make it time-specific: we are faced with a kind of artificial, illusionary world where the bandaged fellow inmates that nervously move around the stage could as well be part of Hoffmann’s tale. Perset and Kruglikov introduced elements of surrealism and fantasy onto the stage, so the border between dream and reality (and our frustration in negotiating it) becomes the focus of attention in this production. The designer chose bright-coloured minimalism for this opera, slightly splashy at times – orange and purple contrasts with abundance of white. Hoffmann wears a coloured wig, the chorus is dressed in bathing suits and caps in the third act – all this stays in memory vividly.
The opera highlights the loneliness of romantic quest for love, although Hoffmann is treated very differently by the three singers who played the part: Mikhail Vekua is the observant, slightly resigned type, Sergei Skorokhodov is defiant and super-active, while Denis Zakirov adds buffoonery to the story. It is the women though that stand out most of all, and they are given an act each to shine. Olga Pudova did a virtuoso performance of Olympia, with robotic movements comically interrupting her world-class singing. Elena Stikhina was faultless and tender as Antonia, while Tatiana Serjan amazed in stepping out of her usual romantic roles and bravely starring as Giulietta.
It was interesting to catch a brief glimpse of rehearsals before this opera was premiered: several casts had to try out their roles during the process. Kruglikov tailored his tips and advice to each person according to their own style, respecting their individual choices in their parts. He was aware of how important it is for singers to find their characters within themselves. Both the director and the conductor Christian Knapp who eventually led the premieres in the end of July 2021, participated passionately in the rehearsal process, and their collaboration was very effective. Daniel Kruglikov is now in New York and feels that he has developed a strong personal attachment to Mariinsky and the whole team of singers and performers. We look forward to welcoming him again later in the year.
Having been shown towards the closure of the Festival, the new premiere still needs time to settle and develop, but it is a perfect indication that Mariinsky is open to new paths in opera direction, while its singers are flexible and ready to be led by a young and inventive creative team and produce something extraordinary as a result. This summer will stay in our memories not only for its heat, while the bouquet of music, ballet and opera delicately designed this year by the Mariinsky will delight our memories with its aftertaste through the rainy autumn evenings.