Richard Wagner as a source of visual splendour: the premieres at Mariinsky Theatre
It seems that there are special kinds of music lovers in this world – those who can be called Wagnerites, Wagnerfiles, Wagneromans. Those who cannot get enough of Wagner, even if each of his masterpieces usually lasts about 4-5 hours. Those who queue for tickets at Bayreuth, at the Royal Opera House for its Wagner tetralogy, who travel to Vienna, Paris, Berlin (Berliner Staatsoper has also recently had a full tetralogy production) and other destinations to enjoy and re-live Wagner experience. It becomes a lifestyle, a vocation, a particular way of living and seeing the world for those who become enamoured with Richard Wagner, both as performers and listeners. The mystery of Wagner’s operas, their meditative and philosophical quality, their grandeur, he unity of their perception, the inclusion of German medieval myths and fairy tale stories, the abundance of the elements of Gesamtkunstwerk in their magnificence – all these characteristics draw the Wagnerites to their beloved composer and to the halls where his works are performed. Stephen Fry, for instance, is well-known Wagnerites, and so are many others.
The 210th birthday of Richard Wagner (born 22 May 1813) became the occasion for Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg to showcase all its existing Wagner productions – they are its pride and glory, and some of them – Parsifal, for instance – are currently performed nowhere in Russia but at the opera house run by its artistic director Valery Gergiev. Gergiev is a long-time fan of Wagner, and currently the maestro has just finished his tour in China with the full Ring tetralogy in a concert version. The Wagner month ran at the Mariinsky in July-August 2023 during the inspiringly long days of summer nights’ season in St Petersburg: it was a good pretext for programming long operas and letting the viewers enjoy the city afterwards. Mariinsky programmed Lohengrin (July 9), Tannhäuser (17 July), the long-awaited full scale premiere of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (21, 22 and 30 July), the concert version of Tristan und Isolde (24 July), Parsifal (25 July), and renewed versions of Das Rheingold (27 July) and Die Walküre (3 August) from the Ring tetralogy staged by Georgy Tsypin in 2003 that still remains popular with St Petersburg audiences.
It was an outstanding month where many Wagnerian talents from the Mariinsky vocal cohorts shined and had to exercise their willpower and artistic strength to be able to sing in so many works in a period of one month. The stars of this marathon were tenor Mikhail Vekua, outstandingly and bravely singing all the leads (this should probably deserve a special prize in the opera world, as I don’t know any other singer who has ever sung these roles within a month) – Parsifal, Tristan, Loge, Sigmund, Tannhäuser, and Walther von Stolzing in a new 6-hour premiere, soprano Irina Churilova – Eva in the new Meistersinger premiere, Princess Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Elsa in Lohengrin, bass Evgeny Nikitin – Amfortas in Parsifal, Veit Pogner in Meistersinger, Hermann in Tannhäuser and Wotan in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Other important singers were mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina (Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kundri in Parsifal), tenor Sergey Skorokhodov (Walther von Stolzing in Meistersinger and Lohengrin in Lohengrin) and bass Mikhail Petrenko (Hans Sachs in Meistersinger). The fact of seeing all these opera within several weeks and spending many hours immersed in Wagner texts and music was almost unbelievable, it put you in a Wagner mood with no returning back. All Wagner operas were conducted by Valery Gergiev himself – it was his own project and his own achievement to lead his singers and his orchestra through all these productions that had been gradually joining the repertoire of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Although the whole month could bring experiences worthy of the whole year of opera attendance, three evenings should be described for the viewer in detail – namely the remakes of two operas from the Ring tetralogy and the premiere of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The latter took two years for Valery Gergiev to realize on stage, from concert versions of separate acts of this long opera the first full concert performance in March 2021 and finally the production by Konstantin Balakin. Again, as is the case with Parsifal, Mariinsky will be the only place in Russia where this opera could be heard, and also become the first production made in Russia that is sung in original German, as the earlier performances in 1909, 1914 and 1926 in Moscow and St Petersburg were sung in Russian.
To turn to two new versions of the earlier productions, the remakes of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were the renewed versions according to the concept proposed by Valery Gergiev who aimed at creating a fully immersive experience for the viewers of these music dramas reworked by Wagner from Norse mythology. With this in mind, the Show Consulting studio was hired to make a series of videos that run in new productions from the top to the floor and represent different scenes of the plot, usually bringing us either in the cave where gold is wrought, or high in the mountains where Valhalla castle stands, that also makes almost real the appearance of dragon in the scene with Alberich changing appearance with the help of a magic Tarnhelm. The director of renewed versions Kristina Larina did a good job of incorporating those videos into the existing impressive sets of Georgy Tsypin, with the anthropomorphic creatures hanging from the ceiling somehow now appearing to be combined with quite realistic and cinematographically self-substantial videos (seeming like shots from Switzerland) that move the productions towards modern cinema and animation.
Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting design has been slightly changed, as now some effects and dynamically crucial points of the operas (especially in Die Walküre) are emphasized rather by the round projection of videos rather than by light changes. Sometimes one also has the feeling that in the attempt to reach the 3D effect the new version slightly overshadows the vocalists, as well. Overall, the evening of Das Rheingold in a new version seemed more successful than the second one as it worked extremely well as a magic fairy tale with the videos bringing us inside the world of Nibelungs and giants. In the case of Die Walküre the same immersive method seemed slightly exaggerated, sometimes decorative and illustrative rather than coming from the needs of the Wagner music, and while producing the effect ‘we have already been there’, not really adding anything new to the incredible Tsypin’s production. However, it might make the Ring tetralogy more accessible to younger audiences, as the new video effects are truly mesmerizing, the music sounds gorgeous, and the Mariinsky production with unknown animalistic monstrous (but nice) creatures observing the Wagner plots still remains impressive.
And what about the awaited Meistersinger premiere? Konstantin Balakin has decided not to take it into the direction of minimalism and avant-garde, and his team has not thought out anything unexpected or form-changing to present the Wagnerian plot based on the real life of the shoemaker Hans Sachs and that focuses upon the artistic vocations of the people of Nürnberg and the freedom to make art open to anyone in this world. In this opera the self-sacrifice of one character and his wish to foster the success of his new pupil and serve a giant on whose shoulders another talent will strive leads to the happiness of others and to the renewal of life. It is an opera where Wagner moves from mythology to psychology and everyday lives of real German people in particular historic era (16th century), and where the normal human jealousy, ambition, love, desire to make poetry and to win the competition are the main plot turners. The new production tries to bring the old Nürnberg to life on stage, and uses etchings by Albrecht Dürer (famously Nuremberg-born) and lithographies with the maps of the old town (videos by Sergey Nekozyrev) to make us feel the atmosphere of those times.
However, Balakin’s production seems that the incredible resources have been used to bring this opera into being, as it has at least five set changes, one surpassing another in its grandeur. If the first scene happens in the church, and it is a large protestant building where one seems to be lost in a large cathedral and very little under the auspices of severe rules (both religious and that of the artisans that gather to speak out the rules of song-making), the final one is a ball that could be compared only to the final scenes of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, as the opera’s world in the director’s concept finally comes alive and from the plant in the pot that Hans Sachs was carefully taking care of finally all possible sorts of greenery develop, taking people in its wake and making us present at the Danse of the Flowers (here one thinks of Tchaikovsky again).
With the visible idea of this production is that of the human soul growing and developing in its desire to make art and love, the interceding scenes are happening in very well made (but slightly illustrative) locations including Hans Sachs’s home – first we see it from the street, with lilac growing outside and Eva’s and her father Veit Pogner’s house just opposite, and then, in another scene change, in the inside, with low ceilings (Elena Vershinina’s sets are very detailed, and mix the realistic feel with something slightly artificial, too beautiful for medieval Nürnberg), with the potted plant present on the windowsill, with various shoemaking instruments lying around. It is here that long scenes between Hans and Eva, Hans and Walther, as well as comic episodes with Hans and Beckmesser (who also wants to win, but doesn’t have the skills and thinks he has been fooled by Hans) take place. Beckmesser is a very masterfully sung and played role by Yaroslav Petryanik, while the world-famous bass Mikhail Petrenko obviously takes centre stage in this production in performing a wise Sachs who teaches young Walther and lets him take his place both in Eva’s heart and in the meistersinger competition. Sergey Skorokhodov and Mikhail Vekua in alternation make their Walther brim with passion and desire to excel (in their very different ways, Vekua with gentle passion and romantic leanings, Skorokhodov with self-assurance and brilliance), while Irina Churilova powerfully sings her Eva as the wise maiden who knows how to choose correctly and how to wait for her beloved one.
This opera is obviously also about the inner democratic changes that unbalance the old hierarchy and allow new beginnings to bloom. However, paradoxically, the choices of the creative team (Balakin as a director, Vershinina as a set designer, Irina Vtornikova responsible for historical costumes and Alexander Sergeev who has thought out the choreography) tend to let the avant garde and innovation give their positions to rather conservative creative decisions. One can call this grand and majestic happening a feat of costumes, opera sets and Wagnerian singing, but one can never feel it touches a modern nerve, as the creators obviously continue reminding us that is is an old town, and its historically dressed characters are possibly living in those old beautiful times that are too far from ours to associate with. A ball-like final ceremony is so magical that one can also remember here Benjamin Britten’s The Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it is so glorious and anomalistically inspired that it can’t possibly take place in a normal city with humans as its participants. Yes, it is another grand Wagner made in Mariinsky where such magic ideas and unreal settings prevail, but it is a pity that the chance to do something very modern and vibrant was not used in the case of Wagner’s most realistic and scrupulous detailed psychological opera from his entire canon. However, this operatic feat is obviously an achievement, and Mariinsky Theatre has become a Wagnerian opera house with this production.