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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas