Celebration of St Petersburg, Royal Opera House, London

Masterpieces from the Mariinsky
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The Independent Culture

Preparing for St Petersburg's tercentenary next year, Valery Gergiev brought a vast selection of the Mariinsky (once Kirov) Theatre's opera, ballet and orchestra to London for two special programmes at Covent Garden: more than 250 performers plus support staff. What an enterprise, but their aim was no less than to celebrate the story of that great theatre and its predecessors, from an opera commissioned in 1787 by Catherine the Great right through to a ballet created this year.

One evening concentrated mainly on the 19th century, the other on the 20th, with early and late Rimsky-Korsakov bridging them. As often as possible, unknown or unfamiliar works were chosen, but even so, many were master- pieces. Imagine being able to follow powerful, deeply moving extracts from Rimsky's Invisible City of Kitezh with the overwhelming Leningrad Symphony, Igor Belsky's ballet to Shostakovich's music. Could there have been a dry eye in the house?

In Kitezh, a cast led by the superbly expressive bass Gennady Bezzubenkov prayed for God to save their city from the Tartars and were rewarded with bells ringing as Kitezh was rendered invisible. No such blessing for St Petersburg/Leningrad in the 1940s, besieged by the Germans for 900 days with 900,000 casualties. The composer and choreographer of Leningrad Symphony were both among the citizens who suffered shelling and starvation; representing the heroic strug- gle in bold, simple, almost abstract form gives it a tremendous impact.

Daria Pavlenko was the ballet's heroine of the night; her account of Leningrad's grief and determination was even more shattering than that of the original performers in the 1960s, and then in Prodigal Son (by St Petersburg's greatest choreographic exile, George Balanchine) she gave a perfectly differentiated but again utterly convincing interpretation of the Siren. Good to see this dramatically evocative work again, new in the Mariinsky repertoire, but once or twice Gergiev ought to have restrained the urge for speed that apparently afflicts him when conducting for dance.

That was apparent also in the odd Snowflakes waltz from the Nutcracker production he commissioned (black and white designs by Mikhail Chemiakin, jerky choreography by Kirill Simonov). But it was interesting to see two numbers by the young choreographer Alexei Ratmansky: a curiously eccentric duet to music by Yuri Khanin, and an adagio from a new modern-dress Cinderella (ingeniously, he shows the heroine anxious about the time, but nobody is wearing a watch). Even more welcome was a duet from Leonid Jacobson's original 1956 production of Spartacus: quietly vivid dances lucidly danced by Yulia Makhalina with Alexander Kurkov.

The programmes were too extensive and diverse even to list all the items, so I'll invidiously single out a few. Of course, there had to be a chorus from Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, the work venerated as almost the first Russian opera, and very fine too. But Cimarosa's now virtually unknown Cleopatra was written for the Hermitage half a century earlier, and a beautiful coloratura solo from it introduced Olga Trifonova, one of several gifted young sopranos. Anna Netrebko was outstanding in her gorgeous aria from Rimsky's The Tsar's Bride – beautifully voiced, and with great charm, too. Best of all was Tatiana Pavlovskaya, in a wonderfully affecting performance of the last scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin: absolutely ravishing.

Being Russians, the basses of course took much prominence, above all Nikolai Putin as Prince Igor and Bezzubenkov as Khan Konchak in their sonorous solos in the Polovtsian act of Borodin's opera, before the famous dances which brought together the opera and ballet companies for the first night's finale. The choreography by Michel Fokine (another Mariinsky exile) always looks better in context than when given alone; the phrasing is lighter and faster than in western productions, but no great harm.

I was not one hundred per cent convinced about Anton Rubinstein's Demon, for all Yevgeny Nikitin's persuasive singing; perhaps we need to know more of the work. But another opera virtually unknown here, Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery, is a real find: a neat comedy based on Sheridan's The Duenna: enormous fun, and given with great zest.

No other company, I fear, could match this enterprise in scope, diversity or execution. All credit to Gergiev for the imagination and drive it revealed, and for the quality of the orchestra and chorus sustaining the two shows. A real joy to see, and a tremendous achievement that bodes well for next year's festivals in their home theatre.