Valery Gergiev: The Ring master

It's the musical event of the summer. As the Mariinsky brings the Ring Cycle to London, Jessica Duchen meets the maestro in charge, the conductor Valery Gergiev

Few would dispute that Valery Gergiev, 56, is today the most viscerally powerful conductor in the world. Or that the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner is the most overwhelming experience available in classical music.

Now Gergiev's Ring Cycle from the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, is set to take the Royal Opera House by storm. The production, Russia's first Ring since 1914, has toured to the Far East, America, Italy and Germany during its five-year life to date, and when it was brought to Cardiff's Millennium Centre three years ago, tickets sold out in four hours flat.

It looks likely to be the event of the musical summer in London. With the four operas performed over four nights, it promises a total-immersion phenomenon, bringing the music's masterful construction and emotional ecstasy into breathtaking focus.

Nevertheless, the reviews have been mixed. They always are for the Ring, of course; it's rare to see that title without the word "controversial" beside it. And Gergiev, too – a whirlwind on legs who circumnavigates the globe at a rate that would make Phileas Fogg look like a tortoise – naturally carries some controversy of his own.

Possessing a legendary charisma that his musicians often say allows him to conduct more with his eyes than with his hands, Gergiev is a one-man musical power station. He's not only the director of the entire Mariinsky Theatre, but also chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a devoted guest-conductor of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra and the mighty Vienna Philharmonic. If you attend a Gergiev concert or opera, you're unlikely to forget it in a hurry – I, for one, am still reeling from the impact of his performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the LSO a good five months ago. But some have suggested that he spreads that famous energy too thin.

Gergiev is notorious for cutting his packed schedule so fine that he's sometimes still in the air when he should be rehearsing. And this, it seems, is a Ring on the wing – specifically, Gergiev's wing. We still don't know exactly what will be seen at Covent Garden, because the production is being revamped, dramatically so. Perhaps only Gergiev could have drafted in a brand-new, 24-year-old director, the Anglo-Russian Oxford graduate Alexander Zeldin, to "re-imagine" the staging at a few months' notice; apparently, they have added video installations as well as tautening up the drama. Clearly this Ring does not just go round and round in circles.

Nor, for that matter, does Gergiev, whose life has carried him on an upward trajectory that would make most space programmes blink. Born in Moscow in 1953, he grew up in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, where his father, an officer in the Red Army, was posted. Later he studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory under the famous conducting professor Ilya Musin.

Aged only 25, Gergiev became assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera (the Mariinsky's name during the Communist era) under Yuri Temirkanov. It was the members of the orchestra who elected him their chief conductor in 1988 – a shock choice, since other candidates included maestros such as Mariss Jansons – yet a prophetic one.

The decision changed the course of the company's history, for it seems that Gergiev's devotion to his Mariinsky will let him stop at nothing. He's employed his famous energy to mesmerise not only orchestras but also politicians: he is famously close to Putin and a number of Russian oligarchs, and his ability to secure political support and significant sponsorship is said to be second to none.

His attachment to his Ossetian background led him to fly to Beslan and conduct a concert in tribute to the victims of the school terrorist attack there in 2004; and he spoke out passionately during the Georgian conflict last year, accusing Georgia of massacring ethnic Ossetians.

Somehow, he has also found time to have a family: in 1999 he married a young pianist and fellow Ossetian, Natalya Debisova, who was then only 19. Now the couple have three children. He also has a grown-up daughter from a former relationship.

London has been the one place where Gergiev, taking up his post as chief conductor of the LSO, was not greeted with entirely open arms. Some critics were anxious that his fly-by-night schedule would prioritise other commitments ahead of London, compromising the LSO's standards through lack of rehearsal. Gergiev's whirlwind style has certainly set the LSO musicians reeling under the intensity. But his concerts are packed, most reviews are superb, and many of the players are now devoted to him. He may not be here much – but he gets results when he is.

So perhaps it is not surprising that when the Mariinsky Ring Cycle, sung in Wagner's original German, was first seen in 2003 on the 300th anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg, the concept was credited entirely to Gergiev and his designer, George Tsypin; no director was mentioned and at first Gergiev retained complete control over the production. Even the singers do not get star billing, their names in advance publicity confined to a list headed: "Singers include... "

Yet this staging has never been just about Gergiev: the arrival of Zeldin is only the latest of its many evolutions. When the production was initially mooted, Gergiev intended to work with the German director Johannes Schaaf. "But at some point in this work on the Ring," Gergiev says, "I was struck by a simple understanding: what is there for the Mariinsky in working with a German director, designer, and lighting designer? I found it more important for all of us to make our own Russian cycle, maybe to bring together elements of Russian theatre, the Mariinsky's history and the new realities of the Mariinsky, including the power of our technical department.

"With the designs of George Tsypin we went far beyond what the German designer had offered us. Tsypin had already made one shockingly modern and hi-tech Ring in Amsterdam. So I thought: why not on the stage of the Mariinsky?"

Tsypin's designs are inspired by Russian, Caucasian, Scythian and, appropriately enough, Ossetian folk imagery, drawn from myths that parallel those that inspired Wagner.

Perhaps this Ring marks the culmination of everything Gergiev has wanted his Mariinsky to stand for. He has turned the company into a breathtaking international force, with a distinctive brand rooted in its own Russianness.

"I have tried to build a type of opera house where, without neglecting or disrespecting the tradition we inherited, one still wants to join the rest of the world in building modern productions," he says. "If we want our own "language" of production style, it need not be exactly like the brilliant theatricality of certain stagings in London or the so-called concept theatre that has dominated German productions for 40 years. There is strong theatre in Germany and one can respect it, but there is no need for a Russian theatre company to copy it. In the style of productions, the change in the Mariinsky has been maybe bigger than in any other major theatre of the world. When I first worked there, there was not one modern production, and not one opera performed in the original language."

All this has been transformed beyond recognition. "I'm not making it my own achievement," Gergiev insists. "It is our achievement, our work, our history. We had some difficulties but we are learning, we were learning and we will learn."

What exactly they have learned should be evident when the Covent Garden curtain rises on Das Rheingold. Perhaps it's constant motion that keeps artistry alive, and the very spontaneity of this Ring's ongoing development that makes the prospect of it so exciting. A few top-price tickets remain. Alternatively, beg, borrow or steal one.

Valery Gergiev conducts Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House, Wed to 1 Aug (0207 304 4000)

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral