With him came three leading lights of the Kirov Opera and a weight of tradition which illuminated and rejuvinated Tchaikovsky's masterpiece of youthful passion and folly, Eugene Onegin.
This was Gergiev's night, the most striking debut at the Royal Opera since Andrew Litton powered in there with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
From the moment the prelude began casting its watery light over the auditorium, atmosphere and commitment took hold. Tchaikovsky's wonderful score breathed in all the right places, urgent, idiomatic rubatos underlined the volatility, the hot-headedness of its young protagonists, strings bowed long and deep, whether carving out messages of foreboding in sonorous bass lines or reaching for dreams unfulfilled. There was opulence and rhythmic panache aplenty in the grand ballroom polonaises, a coarse-cut robustness in the harvest festivities - town and country, peasant and ruling classes in dramatic opposition. The Royal Opera orchestra danced to Gergiev's tune - and the footwork was brilliant.
On stage, the alchemy was less compelling. John Cox is that rare being - a producer who'll willingly, gratefully take the creative initiative from his designer. Timothy O'Brien came across here as the ideas man. His somewhat self-conscious, second-hand 'modernism' framed an old-fashioned drama, stilted in gesture and manner. I say 'framed' since the recurrent image here was precisely that.
At the start of the opera we see Tatyana and Olga illuminated in an idyllic portrait of sisterhood - an almost photographic image, as tangible as it is illusory. The respectable face of Russian provincialism, cosy but at the same time stultifying. Tatyana's bedroom is again a 'framed' portrait of domestic bliss, spotless to the point of sterility.
Only as the passions of her letter scene grow uncontainable and the wall of the room becomes transparent to reveal a romantic full moon and trees do we suddenly understand how trapped she is. That's a telling moment, as is the spectacle of her marooned in a huge gilded frame over the revellers at her nameday ball (an oppressive, one hopes intentionally hideous set). Visually, O'Brien's finest moment is the dawn duel of Act 2, a gauze-induced watercolour of chilly white mist with blazing brazier and dark, barely discernible human forms. Yet the human drama never actually came to life in these design-conscious environments.
The principal voices were all good, though only Gegam Grigorian's unlikely looking but feeling Lensky really touched where it counts. Galina Gorchakova's young, forcefully projected voice (such a boon in the dramatic contortions of Renata in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel) doesn't yield and float readily in the rapt, transported phrases of Tatyana's solitary confinement. It doesn't touch the heart with its lyricism. She comes alive as the womanly Tatyana, just as Sergei Leiferkus - fine, upstanding, but oddly sexless as Onegin - comes into his own as the man falls apart.
His voice is less charismatic these days; the focus is exciting but it lacks resonance. There is plenty of that in Louise Winter's Olga, a spirited portrayal of an all too sensible girl. But truthfully, only in the heart of Gergiev's orchestra did the pulse of this great piece really beat at full strength.
Further performances 7pm tonight, 17, 20, 22, 24 July. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden WC2 (071-240 1911 / 1066).