Kirov bringing Russian opera tradition to D.C. Russian opera in D.C. Music: Company shares 142 years of experience at Kennedy Center.

February 18, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In the early 18th century, John Addison wondered why his fellow Londoners liked "to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own county" and listen to operas performed "in a tongue they did not understand." That tongue was Italian, and the craze for Italian operas in non-Italian-speaking countries was hardly confined to Britain.

Addison's question could have just as easily been raised at the same time by a citizen of the newly founded Russian imperial capital of St. Petersburg, where Italian opera reigned supreme until a fortuitous fire in 1859 burned down the Circus Theater. It was in there that a struggling troupe devoted to indigenous opera had been trying to secure a foothold.

On the ashes of the Circus Theater rose the Mariinsky Theater in 1860, where that Russian opera company took up residence and gradually, aria by aria, weaned the public away from Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi.

By the 1870s, the company helped to establish the works by Russian composers securely in the repertoire, and the Mariinsky Theater became the site of one notable world premiere after another, right on into the 20th century -- Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov's May Night, Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Ballet was always equally important at the Mariinsky; such classics as Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker had their first productions there.

After the Russian Revolution, just as St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad, the theater was re-christened the Kirov -- after Sergei Mironovich Kirov, a Communist Party official who was assassinated, possibly on Stalin's orders. Today, in the new Russia and a city called St. Petersburg again, the Mariinsky Theater and its resident companies -- the Kirov Opera, Kirov Ballet and Kirov Orchestra -- remain stellar attractions.

Those three wings of the Kirov have alighted at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the first of 10 annual visits being funded by mega-philanthropist Alberto Villar (to the tune of about $15 million).

The Kirov Ballet wrapped up its sold-out schedule yesterday; tomorrow, dancers, singers and the orchestra combine for a sold-out tribute to Tchaikovsky. Starting Wednesday, the Kirov Opera, in its first visit to Washington, takes the spotlight with productions of Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina and Verdi's Macbeth.

In addition to the actual works being performed, something else will be on the Kennedy Center stage -- the cumulative experience of the Mariinsky Theater's 142 remarkable years.

"The opera company, as well as the ballet, is aiming to preserve the best of Russian tradition," says Valery Gergiev, 48, artistic director and principal conductor of the Kirov Opera since 1988, succeeding Yuri Temirkanov.

The charismatic, much in-demand Gergiev became director of the entire Mariinsky Theater in 1996. He's also principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, where he is leading performances of Prokofiev's War and Peace -- a production from the Kirov -- in between his D.C. assignments.

Gergiev's stamp on the grand, elegant Mariinsky Theater has been a vibrant one. Not only has the Russian opera repertoire been reinforced (a new production of Semyon Kotko by the conductor's beloved Prokofiev in 1999 is just one example), but non-Russian repertoire has also received intensified attention as well. In 1997, Gergiev presided over the first production of Wagner's Parsifal in Russia in 80 years and has embarked on a complete presentation of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

"My biggest achievement -- I'm not even talking artistically; I don't say anything about my conducting -- is that I have kept the Kirov ensemble together, the orchestra, chorus and singers," Gergiev says.

"We have kept alive the integrity of the stagings. We have found and trained strong artists who are able to sing and to act in modern productions; many of our great names also appear regularly at the Met, Salzburg, Paris."

For all of the attention the Kirov has been getting with Gergiev at the helm, the conductor is the first to acknowledge the benefit of Temirkanov's legacy.

"He was a lucky choice for the Mariinsky Theater," Gergiev says by cell phone from a Washington-bound train. "He was there 12 years, and it was under him that the company grew. I inherited the company under totally different circumstances, during the Gorbachev era, with its openness and perestroika. I have been able to do things, like the Ring Cycle, that would have been unthinkable during Temirkanov's time. He was focused on other things.

"The results since I became director -- without saying they are better or worse -- are different. He did things his way; I do things my way. But we both equally understand the importance of the Mariinsky Theater and the Russian musical tradition."

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