Saint Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theatre has been home to world-class performances of ballet and opera since 1860. We take a look at the history of this prestigious institution and how it has remained a quintessential cultural destination for more than 150 years
In 1783 the Russian empress Catherine the Great ordered the construction of a new venue in which to stage the first Russian comic operas as well as the leading works of foreign composers. This led to the establishment of the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, which was situated on Saint Petersburg’s Carousel Square – later renamed Theatre Square in honour of the building – and became the principal home of the Imperial ballet and opera.
In 1860, famous architect Albert Cavos completed work on an ambitious project: an opera and ballet house with the largest stage in the world. Also on Theatre Square, it had a seating capacity of over 1,600 and its U-shaped auditorium followed the Italian style. Cavos named his creation Mariinsky after its patroness, Empress Maria Alexandrovna. The theatre opened in October of that year with a performance of the Russian tragic opera A Life for the Tsar.
In 1869, a new principal conductor was appointed – Eduard Nápravník – who led the Mariinsky into a glorious new era. Under his leadership, many of the most important operas in the history of Russian music premiered here, including The Maid of Orleans, The Enchantress, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta by Tchaikovsky as well as countless more by other leading composers of the day.
The appointment of Marius Petipa as director of the ballet company in the same year began a similarly exciting era of dance. Petipa collaborated with some of the most groundbreaking composers and choreographers of the day. With Tchaikovsky, he created the famous The Sleeping Beauty, which premiered at the Mariinsky in 1890. (The Imperial Ballet was based at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre during the 1860s and 1870s, but in 1886 the Mariinsky became its official home.) Alongside dancer and choreographer Lev Ivanov, Petipa produced The Nutcracker. After the death of Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Ivanov reworked the choreography for Swan Lake, helping to cement the work’s status as the icon of ballet that it is today.
The Mariinsky has seen many reconstructions and augmentations in its 158 years. In 1885 a three-storey wing was added to the left of the building. In 1894 the theatre’s wooden rafters were replaced with steel and concrete, the side wings were extended and the foyers were enlarged. The main façade was also renovated, becoming grander than ever.
After the fall of the Romanov dynasty there were many changes across the nation, the Mariinsky Theatre continued to thrive – though under a different name. In 1920 it became the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet; later it was named the Kirov Theatre after the Bolshevik Sergey Kirov.
Under every appellation, the space remained the pre-eminent theatre for ballet and opera in Russia, and continued to help shape the classical genres. Alongside traditional works, the company staged new compositions and styles, preserving both the heritage and the future of the arts of ballet and opera.
Yuri Temirkanov was appointed director of the theatre in 1976, and two of his opera productions in particular helped to shape the future of the Mariinsky. Both by Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades saw the emergence of a new generation of performers who would go on to be leading lights in the genre. These productions are still in the theatre’s repertoire today.
Since 1988 both the ballet company and opera company have been under the artistic leadership of Valery Gergiev, who has implemented many changes and pushed the Mariinsky (a name that was restored in 1992) to new heights of excellence. As well as reorganising the company’s operations, Gergiev also established links with other great opera houses across the world, including the Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan. Today the opera company tours and completes residencies in cities in North America, Europe, Asia and beyond.
Gergiev’s influence has also been felt in the nature of the operas at the Mariinsky Theatre. The company has continued to incorporate new and challenging performances and programmes, and has begun to stage operas in languages other than Russian. Since 1993, the opera company has premiered its upcoming season during the White Nights Festival, an annual event that celebrates the long days in May and June when the sun hardly sets in Saint Petersburg.
In 2007, the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall was opened on the initiative of Valery Gergiev. Designed by French architect Xavier Fabre, the space fuses highly contemporary design with classical elements preserved from the building formerly on the site (which was badly damaged in a fire in 2003). In 2013 work was completed on Mariinsky II, which lies just across the canal from the original theatre. The Mariinsky’s constant expansion and development is a testament to its continued importance as a centre of culture for Russia and beyond.
If you are visiting Saint Petersburg, a visit to the Mariinsky Theatre is an absolute must. Whether you’re a classical music aficionado or new to the genre, the theatre’s performers are all leaders in their fields, and the ballets and operas staged here will transport you to another world.