The long-awaited new Mariinsky Theater opens on May 2 with a star-studded performance that will be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a crowd of select guests.
At a cost of some $700 million, the Mariinsky II is one of the most expensive cultural projects ever built. But it has drawn mixed reviews
in St. Petersburg, with critics saying the slick structure jars with the city’s elegant classical architecture.
RFE/RL’s Claire Bigg spoke recently to Jack Diamond, the building’s Toronto-based architect.
RFE/RL: Please describe the concept behind your design. What were the biggest challenges of working in a city like St. Petersburg?
The challenge is how to do a contemporary building in a city of such overwhelmingly important classical architecture. That is the great challenge. And it is in the context of having the historical, venerated Mariinsky Theater of old right next door.
The Mariinsky II is a very large structure itself because it will have the production facilities for the old and the new house. It fills an entire block. So the first decision made was to have a continuity of the streetscape and that the Mariinsky II would make its contribution to that amazing consistency of St. Petersburg.
That is, of course, an approach which some people think is not appropriate, because they want to see an extravagant and novel, free-standing structure, as is seen in some places in Europe. Our decision was that this is not appropriate in St. Petersburg in this circumstance. So we have used the elements of the old architecture, which are a masonry base and a metal roof. Instead of a classical portico, we have used great structural glass bay-windows.
'A Democratic Dimension'
[It] has a new dimension which is entirely consistent to the spirit of our time -- that is, a democratic one. Old opera houses had an elitist sense to them. You could not see inside. Quite often, there were separate entrances for those who paid less for their seats and those who entered through the main portico. This is different now. And the transparency of these bay-windows allows people to see inside and, just as importantly, get framed views of their city from the inside. That removes the kind of exclusiveness, the elitism of the opera house.
PHOTO GALLERY: St. Petersburg's Old And New Mariinsky Theaters
The Mariinsky Theater complex straddles the Kryukov canal in downtown St. Petersburg, with the old (left) and new theaters connected by a glass gangway.
The new building occupies nearly 80,000 square meters, making it one of the largest theater and concert venues in the world. Backlit onyx walls in the split-level foyer of the Mariinsky II Theater surround the venue's auditorium.
The old Mariinsky was cramped but no slouch. Just plain "Mariinsky" is merely the latest name (since 1992) for a theater complex whose titles have changed with the times. Previous titles have included the Imperial Mariinsky, the State Academic Theater, the Leningrad State Academic Theater, and the Kirov State Academic Theater of opera and ballet.
The new Mariinsky II hosted a "pre-premiere" performance for veterans, senior theater employees, and VIP guests on May 1. The company says that at about 18,000 cubic meters, the new hall has "an ideal volume and is comparable to the world's most renowned opera houses."
A view from the Kryukov canal of the original Mariinsky Theater
A view from the street of the new Mariinsky II Theater, with its exterior of Jura limestone and "syncopated floor-to-ceiling windows"
Architect Jack Diamond said an aim of his design and the huge exterior windows of the Mariinsky II was to "remove the kind of exclusiveness, the elitism of the opera house."
The floor of the old Mariinsky Theater, whose original seating capacity of 1,625 in the Italian style made it the largest stage in the world at the time of its opening (with "A Life for the Tsar" in 1860).
A close-up of one of the wall panels, made of Italian onyx
A 1902 view of the Mariinsky Imperial Theater, which was built in 1860. It hosted countless premieres from treasured Russian artists including Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Petipa.
The complex's "Mariinsky" name refers to Empress Maria Aleksandrova, the wife of 19th-century Romanov tsar, Alexander II, who ruled over Russia, Poland, and Finland.
The old Mariinsky Theater, which was already home to the Mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera, and Mariinsky Orchestra
Journalists and other special guests toured the Mariinsky II, including its spiral staircase, one day ahead of the official opening.
Internationally acclaimed conductor Valery Gergiyev, seen with President Vladimir Putin after being granted the Hero of Labor award on May 1, has served as the Mariinsky's general director since 1996.
The terrace of the Mariinsky II Theater provides a panoramic view of St. Petersburg, and organizers expect to host chamber music events there when the weather allows.
However, once you get inside, all bets are off. The public areas have an exuberance and a fun because going to the opera house today is, in a sense, in competition with people who can watch it on television, see it on their computer screen, can have videos and play them at will. The difference is that going to an event is a gregarious activity. And I often think that before the show begins, and during intermission, it is not the musicians who are the performers, it is the audience.
So you have a modest exterior that is paying respect to the classical architecture of St. Petersburg, you have the exuberance of the public areas, which I think people will find dazzling. Then you enter the inner sanctum, which is comfortable, it has a sense of cohesion and its presence is felt but it is not an ego trip of the architect to overpower the room, because the focus should be on the stage and on the sound. Those are the things that drove the design.
RFE/RL: The Mariinsky II opens its doors for the first time on [May 2]. So far, St. Petersburg residents have only seen its exterior, and opinions are deeply divided. Conductor Valery Gergiev, the much-respected Mariinsky Theater’s artistic and general director, has praised the new building. But others have criticized it as bland and said it clashes with St. Petersburg’s unique architecture. There is even a petition to have it razed. Were you expecting such hostile reactions?
I had exactly the same reaction when we did the opera house in Toronto. People wanted red velvet and guild and classicals of the old kind, they railed against the modernity. Once it opened, of course, opinion changed. It has been open six years and, honestly, I have yet to go to a performance when one or more people whom I don’t know come up to me and say: ‘Thank you, we love your house.’ And they are not doing it to flatter me. They are doing it because they feel moved to come and say so.
My answer is that the classical architecture had an authenticity about the spirit of its time. What an artist does is to be authentic to his or her own time. People don’t like change. They love their old St. Petersburg as I do. But I honor it by being modest on the exterior and giving them an opera house, hopefully, that can stand with the best in the world. I will not please everybody. But I can assure you that once it is open, there will be more people who are pleased than who are not.