Amidst the news of continuous closure of concert halls in Britain and the USA and only partial re-opening of venues in Europe it is with enormous joy that St Petersburg residents found out that the “Stars of White Nights” festival will take place again this year at all three venues of Mariinsky Theatre. This year marks its 28th edition, and though the start was delayed, the festival ran from the end of July to beginning of September 2020.

Everything was unprecedented and with unexpected turns: the artistic director of Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev was the first one in the city to receive permission for operas and concerts. All precautions were taken, including seating with intervals, temperature measured at the entrance and obligatory masks worn during the performances. The programme was highly flexible – performances were announced for each consecutive week, usually drawing on arrangements with Russian soloists that could come from other cities including Moscow, or lived in St Petersburg.

9th Symphony by Beethoven, photo by Natalia Razina © Maryinsky Theatre, 2020

Outstanding artists were available during this time, and some operas from their repertoire that were not part of Mariinsky season before, were performed in concertante versions, such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Verdi’s Attila with the world-renown bass Ildar Abdrazakov. International star pianists – Nikolai Lugansky, Daniil Trifonov and Dmitry Masleev performed at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with some of the concerts streamed online. Each of these events was considered as a breath of  fresh air both for the audiences and performers. The possibility to attend live performances was a huge advantage in comparison with many other countries of the world and even cities of Russia, and almost all productions were surely sold out.

“Lucia di Lammermoor”, photo by Valentin Baranovsky © Maryinsky Theatre, 2020

While featuring some national guest artists at the festival, Mariinsky mainly relied on its outstanding cohort of female and male opera singers and ballet dancers. As a theatre critic specializing in opera, I tried to see as many productions at Mariinsky-1 (Historical Building) and Mariinsky-2 (New Stage) as possible during this time. Some of them were revivals of operas that have been running for years and proved to be popular with the viewers. Thus, Mozart (whose operas usually require a smaller number of orchestral musicians) was particularly popular, with Così Fan Tutte and Nozze di Figaro running several times during the festival. The usual beloved operatic repertoire of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti was in fashion too: Tosca, Aida, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Barber of Seville, La Bohème were on at Mariinsky featuring the finest of local talents working with Mariinsky Theatre. For instance, Albina Shagimuratova who was based in Moscow during the quarantine, performed the leading part of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor astounding the audience with her exquisitely phrased, powerful singing, stature-like postures and star presence on the stage. The international opera star also appeared as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and admitted to be nervous, but happy to perform on stage again.

“Rigoletto”, photo by Natalia Razina © Maryinsky Theatre, 2020

Maestro Valery Gergiev began exploration of upcoming new productions in concert versions during the festival, dedicating whole evening performances to specific acts of chosen operas. Thus, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was heard over two evenings at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with such soloists as Mikhail Vekua and Mikhail Petrenko, Anna Churilova and Roman Burdenko exploring the world of 16th century knights who compete in poetic achievements and seek to gain love of beautiful Eva. In a similar way, the premiere production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden (you may read Yulia’s article about it here) was shown in a concert version in its early days.

After a nearly 50 years break, Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans (based on the libretto that Tchaikovsky compiled from different sources including Schiller, Barbier and Wallon’s biography of Joan of Arc) was heard in concert version at Mariinsky Concert Hall, with Ekaterina Semenchuk singing Ioanna with outstanding passion, dedication and power. It seems that Maestro used the space of the Festival for experiments and ‘open rehearsals’ of the operas he was thinking of engaging with before the quarantine, and produced remarkable concertante versions of these.

Analysing the programme – especially the revivals of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (2008, directed by Ian Judge) and Sergey Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel (1991, directed by David Freeman) – it seems that the character of an estranged woman who is a mystic, sooth-sayer, and a prophet verging on madness, tapping into both passion and suffering became a connecting thread of this festival. Such heroines are present in Verdi’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in Tchaikovksy’s The Maid of Orleans, and in the above-mentioned brilliant revivals. Some variation, however, was present – a story of an outsider who loves and struggles appeared in the Russian classic Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, both Mariinsky’s productions – one by Yuri Temirkanov of 1982 and a more recent version by Alexey Stepanyuk of 2014. Interestingly, it was the imposing Alexey Markov, singing the lead part with his rich, velvety baritone and almost old-fashioned stature, who reminded us both of Russian nobility and 20th century operatic stars.

“Fiery Angel”, photo by Valentin Baranovsky © Maryinsky Theatre, 2020

Apart from being blown away by the visual feast of The Snow Maiden (directed by Anna Matison) and Olga Pudova’s performance in it, my own personal discovery of the festival was the wonderful soprano Elena Stikhina. Elena graduated from Moscow Conservatory and worked for several years at the Primorsky Stage of Mariinsky Theatre in Vladivostok, relatively recently she moved to work in St Petersburg. During the Summer of 2020 St Petersburg audience had the opportunity to fully appreciate Elena’s vocal mastery, varied intonations and phrasing, acting skills and personality. She starred as a dreamy, youthful (and later self-confident and glamorous) Tatyana in Onegin who expressed the longing of love with great emotion and detail. Elena appeared as Senta and brought that inner core and passion with renewed force and energy into this role, almost stealing our full attention from her stage partner Evgeny Nikitin who sang the Dutchman.

“The Flying Dutchman”, photo by Natalia Razina © Maryinsky Theatre, 2020

Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel was Valery Gergiev’s tour-de-force during the festival. It was the first time when full orchestral powers, including large percussion section, were allowed in to the pit of Mariinsky. In this opera, based on Valery Brusov’s novel, a woman Renata (who later becomes a nun) is mystically in love with the angel Madiel and seeks for his presentations in ‘earthly’ men: the vision of Henrich and the knight Ruprecht. Passions expressed in previous operas are transformed by Stikhina into the search of half-man, half-God and are brought to new levels that turn singing into ecstasy presenting a combination of integrity, bravery and openness on stage. Meanwhile, Stikhina retains grace, intellect, attention to phrasing – she never loses herself, is always in control, and exceptionally powerful. Elena will definitely make herself known widely and internationally after the festival, and hopefully will also perform at Mariinsky during the 2020/2021 season. It was a delight to attend the events of the festival, and it is so wonderful to think that St Petersburg gradually regains its status of Russian cultural capital.