In 1993, Valery Gergiev, general and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, presented the city of St Petersburg with a unique “musical gift” – the Stars of the White Nights Festival – a truly stunning showcase for the world renowned artistry of the orchestra, ballet and opera companies of the Mariinsky.
Surely one of the grandest and most expansive annual festivals of the performing arts anywhere in the world, it takes its name from the magical long summer nights in the city of St Petersburg, when the sun never sets, and where audiences emerge from the evening performances at the Mariinsky’s three theatres to stroll in daylight along the streets of the city.
This year, the XXIII Music Festival Stars of the White Nights has a special cause for celebration – the 175th anniversary of the birth of Tchaikovsky who in 1865 was one of the first graduates of the St Petersburg Conservatory. It also celebrates two world premieres – new productions of Tchaikovsky’s opera, The Queen of Spades, and Verdi’s La Traviata – as well as the opening of the terrace of Mariinsky-II, the most recent addition to the Company’s stages, which has a simply gorgeous view over the domes and spires of the centre of St Petersburg.
The 2015 Festival opened on 27th May with the new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades – the 1,304th performance of the opera at the Mariinsky since its original world premiere there on the 7th of December in 1890. With libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, the opera is based on a short story, with elements of the supernatural, by Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky began work on the score in Florence during the winter of 1889 and completed his clavier version in just 44 days, writing to his brother that “I wrote the opera with self-abandonment and enjoyment,” adding “ … either I am terribly and unforgivably wrong or The Queen of Spades is truly my chef-d’oeuvre”.
Both the opera and its characters are regarded as the most typical of St Petersburg among Tchaikovsky’s works, with a plot which unfolds in the Summer Garden, along the Winter Palace Canal, at the home of the Countess on Malaya Morskaya Street, and on the public squares and in the army barracks of the city. As Director Alexei Stepanyuk says: “This story could only have taken place in St Petersburg, a city of white nights, a city of ghosts…”. Maestro Gergiev will conduct the next performance of The Queen of Spades on 26th July at Mariinsky-II.
The second world premiere of the Festival is the Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata which opens this week. With libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after Alexandre Dumas the younger’s play, La Dame aux camélias, La Traviata is directed by Claudia Solti (daughter of conductor Georg Solti), who debuted as an opera director at the Mariinsky with Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Mariinsky in 2011. This production was described as “spectacular” with its “ethereal flights of fancy and transformations”, and Ms Solti predicts that there will be “the same flights of fancy in the new Traviata”.
Outlining some of the features of her production to Nadezhda Kulygina, writer of programme notes for the Mariinsky, Ms Solti explained that because the heroes of the opera are young, she is casting soloists from the Mariinsky Academy of Young Opera Singers in the leading roles. She also makes the point that this love story is often performed very “politely” because 150 years ago, people were polite. “Whereas to me these are real people, they’re real flesh and blood, they’re young and they’re in love and it’s a party environment. Not people drinking cups of tea politely, I don’t see it like that, I see it much more as sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
The set and costumes for Traviata are by Isabella Bywater who says that the opera has been set, loosely, in the period in which it was written, and “The mood is luxurious, indulgent and sensual”. In terms of set design, “I thought of a carousel,” she says, “as a way to show the adjoining rooms of Violetta’s apartment, so that we could follow her movements room to room as she entertains her friends, feels unwell or falls in love, much as one might in a film.” La Traviata opens on 17th June and runs for five performances, the last one taking place on 28th July.
The number of operas being presented during this Festival is a staggering 35 – roughly one-third of the vast Mariinsky repertoire – ranging from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, through epic works such as Les Troyens to 20th century works such as Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery and Rodion Shchedrin’s The Lefthander, commissioned by the Mariinsky in celebration of Maestro Gergiev’s 60th birthday in 2013. Tchaikovsky is, of course, well represented, by Eugene Onegin, Iolanta, and Mazeppa, as well as The Queen of Spades.
The programme of ballets features 18 works, including Tchaikovsky’s big three – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. There are works from the Romantic era such as Giselle and La Sylphide; more contemporary ballets such as Jewels and A Midsummer Night’s Dream from one of St Petersburg’s most famous sons, George Balanchine; Yuri Grigorovich’s A Legend of Love and Alexei Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina. Also featured is the Final Graduation Performance of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.
Some of the world’s finest musicians are performing in the concerts and recitals – names which include Yuri Bashmet, Pinchas Zukerman, Leonidas Kavakos, Daniil Trifonov, Denis Matsuev, James Ehnes, and Rudolf Buchbinder, and guest conductors such as Cristoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Paavo Järvi.
The busiest conductor of the Festival, is of course, Maestro Gergiev himself, who – at a glance – looks to be leading 30 or more performances – and is still managing to include some international appearances in his schedule. He is in Moscow with the Mariinsky Orchestra on 3rd July for the Gala Concert of Prizewinners of the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition – and Maestro and Orchestra are in Finland, Germany and Slovenia between 4th and 15th July. Maestro Gergiev also appears with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo on 19th July, as part of the 2015 Russia in Monaco festival, and at the Verbier Festival with the Verbier Festival Orchestra on 23rd July, before an appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra at a BBC Proms performance on 28th July. His onward schedule of home and international appearances is equally breathtaking.
A detailed calendar of events for the XXIII Music Festival Stars of the White Nights can be found on the Mariinsky Theatre website. A click-through from the title of each performance provides a showcase of some gorgeous images which is not to be missed.