Empress Catherine II issued an imperial edict that "Russian Theatre should be not merely for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas". This decree of 12th June 1783 to the Russian company performing in the specially built Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre envisaged the "production of one or two serious operas and two new comic operas per year". This date is considered the starting point in the history of the Mariinsky Opera Company.
Italian opera held sway over St Petersburg’s Bolshoi Theatre, which opened on 24th September 1783 with Paisiello’s opera Il mondo della luna. Alongside those by foreign composers, Russian works gradually began to appear on the Petersburg stage, including Orpheus and The Coachmen at the Travellers’ Inn by Yevstigney Fomin, The Miller, the Wizard, the Liar and the Matchmaker by Mikhail Sokolovsky and The Carriage Accident by Vasily Pashkevich. These first frays into the world of opera played a great historic role, as this is where elements of the Russian musical and dramatic style were first heard, later to be developed in the works of the great opera composers of the 19th century.
Very quickly the theatre’s repertoire began to include productions that were Russian in theme and which had Russian characters. One of the first was the “historic production” set to music under the title of The Beginning of Oleg’s Reign, the libretto for which was written by Catherine the Great herself, the music being written by the composers Vasily Pashkevich, Carlo Canobbio and Giuseppe Sarti.
Subsequently, too, the Italian vocal school exerted a constant influence on Russian opera, and throughout the 19th century and in the early 20th century the European opera repertoire was broadly represented at the Imperial theatres.
A tremendous role was played in the development of the Opera Company by the conductor Caterino Cavos, who was the first to stage “grand” operas with Russian singers. His pupils included Maria Stepanova and Anna Vorobieva. He was also actively involved in a production of Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar at the Imperial theatre. The world premiere took place in 1836.
On 2 October 1860 A Life for the Tsar was performed at the opening of a new theatre named the Mariinsky in honour of Empress Maria Alexandrovna. The theatre’s company was made up of a group of artistes from the Imperial Russian Opera who had worked with Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka and who followed the great composer’s behests: contralto Daria Leonova, soprano Anisia Bulakhova, tenor Pavel Bulakhov, bass Semyon Artemovsky and baritones Grigory Kondratiev and Ivan Melnikov. The patriarch of the company was Osip Petrov – the founding father of the Russian performing style in Russian opera. Singers who performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in the 1860s knew very well what the art of acting entailed, having worked alongside acclaimed Russian dramatic actors when they had to share the stage of the Bolshoi and Alexandrinsky Theatres.
At the time, the theatre’s staff was principally made up from the singing class of Federico Ricci (1809-1877), an Italian composer and a teacher at the St Petersburg Theatre School. The most famous of his pupils were singers who served at the Mariinsky Theatre for many years and who had immense repertoires – basses Vladimir Vasiliev the first and Ferdinand Meo, tenor Vasily Vasiliev the second and soprano Olga Kokh. The second teacher at the school was Nikolai Vitelyaro. His pupils included the outstanding Russian singers Daria Leonova, Fyodor Nikolsky, Dmitry Orlov, Yulia Platonova and Olga Schroeder.
Russian opera singers such as Yelizaveta Sandunova, Anton Krutitsky, Vasily Samoylov and Pyotr Zlov dazzled alongside foreign soloists on the Petersburg stage. The emergence of the Russian school is linked to these names. Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar was premiered at St Petersburg’s Bolshoi Theatre on 27th November 1836; precisely six years later, on 27th November 1842, Glinka’s second opera Ruslan and Lyudmila was performed here for the first time. The first in a series of great Russian operas combining true art with genuine accessibility, they marked the birth of classical Russian opera. It was not by mere chance that A Life for the Tsar opened the Mariinsky Theatre on 2nd October 1860.
Edward Napravnik, who dedicated over half a century to the Mariinsky Theatre (1863-1916), played an immense role in developing Russian operatic theatre, training singers and establishing a brilliant orchestra. Napravnik built up a great company that could perform complicated concert programmes in addition to operas and ballets.
The operas The Stone Guest by Dargomyzhsky (1872), Judith (1863), Rogneda (1865) and Satan (1871) by Serov, most of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, Boris Godunov (1874) and Khovanshchina (1886) by Musorgsky, Prince Igor (1890) by Borodin, The Demon by Rubenstein, all of Tchaikovsky’s operas (Charodeika being conducted by the composer himself) and other magnificent Russian operatic works were all premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre.
The theatre’s repertoire also included the best operas by western European composers. Giuseppe Verdi wrote La forza del destino especially for the Mariinsky Theatrein 1862, where it was premiered in the presence of the composer.
The history of Richard Wagner’s operas in Russia is closely linked above all with the Mariinsky Theatre, where Wagner first became known to Russians not only as a composer but also as a conductor. In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the Mariinsky Opera Company introduced the public to the composer’s early reformative works and, at the turn of the century, staged Wagner’s grandiose tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen in full.
A great opera company emerged at the Mariinsky Theatre. The talents of Osip Petrov, who first sang the roles of Susanin, Ruslan, Farlaf, the Miller and Ivan the Terrible helped Russian operatic art to blossom. He performed on stage for almost half a century alongside Anna Vorobyova-Petrova, Maria Stepanova and Lev Leonov. These singers were succeeded by a younger generation of singers including Yulia Platonova, Mikhail Sariotti, Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, Ivan Melnikov, Fyodor Stravinsky, Yevgeny Mravin, Maria Slavina and Nikolai and Medea Figner. At the turn of the century, the Russian operatic stage was illuminated by the talents of the great Fyodor Chaliapin, who constantly aimed to embody artistic truth and portray strong human emotions on the stage.
At the start of the 20th century, operas at the Mariinsky Theatre were marked by innovative attempts to stage "unified" productions that combined music, drama, painting and choreography. Artists Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Korovin, Alexander Benois and Valentin Serov, choreographer Mikhail Fokine and director Vsevolod Meierhold collaborated on operatic productions. During his period as director of the Mariinsky Theatre (1909-1918), Meierhold staged several productions including Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1909), Gluck’s Orphйe et Eurydice (1911), Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1911), Strauss’ Elektra (1913), Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest (1917), Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden (1917) and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale (1918). Meierhold’s operatic reforms brought the art closer to contemporary theatrical trends, seeking out new stylistic techniques connected with conventional theatre aesthetics and stylisation. In the first years after the Revolution, the foremost Russian performers continued to sing at the theatre. An entire galaxy of operatic stars including Chaliapin, Yershov, Piotrovsky, Andreyev, Bosse, Kastorsky and Kobzareva performed on the stage. Soon a new generation of artists appeared; such singers as Maksakova, Reisen, Slivinsky, Migay, Derzhinskaya, Pechovsky and Gorskaya provided a firm foundation for the Opera Company in years to come.
Conducting was at an unusually high level; operas were conducted by Kouts, Malko, Fitelberg, Pokhitonov, Kuper, Dranishnikov and Gauk.
Amongst new operas performed at the Mariinsky Theatre at this time, Prokofiev’s satirical comic opera Love for Three Oranges (1926), Berg’s expressionistic Wozzeck (1927) and Strauss’ Salome (1924) and Der Rosenkavalier (1928) were especially interesting. The years leading up to the Second World War saw the production of Gotterdammerung in 1931, Das Rheingold in 1933 and Lohengrin in 1941.
During the war years, part of the company remained in besieged Leningrad and performed concerts and operas for city residents. The rest of the company was evacuated to Perm, where it not only performed operas from the repertoire of past years, but also staged several new productions.
After the war, the theatre staged many important productions, bringing fame to a new generation of singers, musicians and directors. Prokofiev’s The Duenna (Betrothal in a Monastery), one of the most vivid comic operas, was among those to enjoy such success when it was staged in 1946. 1960 saw the premiere of Semyon Kotko (directed by Tovstonogov). Amongst the greatest singers then at the theatre were Preobrazhenskaya, Serval, Kashevarova, Velter, Mshanskaya, Barinova, Krivulia and Laptev.
Of western European operas, the revival of Wagner’s Lohengrin (1962) and Verdi’s La forza del destino (1963) deserve special attention. Later came Benjamin Britten’s contemporary opera Peter Grimes (1965) and Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel’s Lбslу Hunyadi (1965). 1966 saw the production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an opera rarely staged in Russia. Productions of these years helped discover the unique talents and great gifts of singers such as Irina Bogacheva, Galina Kovaleva, Lyudmila Filatova, Boris Shtokolov and Vladimir Atlantov.
Yuri Temirkanov was the theatre’s Principal Conductor from 1976 to 1988. Starting with contemporary operatic music (Prokofiev’s War and Peace (1977) and Rodion Shedrin’s Dead Souls, staged by Boris Pokrovsky (1978)), he turned his attentions to Russian classics not merely as a conductor but also as a stage director, writing his own scene plans for Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. During this period, such great singers as Yevgeniya Gorokhovskaya, Lyubov Kazarnovskaya, Larisa Shevchenko, Konstantin Pluzhnikov, Nikolai Okhotnikov, Sergei Leiferkus, Alexei Steblyanko and Yuri Marusin occupied the forefront of the operatic stage.
Valery Gergiev’s appointment as Principal Conductor and later Artistic Director at the end of the 1980’s heralded a new era for the Opera Company. The first years of his leadership were devoted to reforms not only to repertoire policy, but most importantly to the development of a new working style in a new, faster artistic tempo. On Gergiev’s initiative, the theatre held "monographic" festivals dedicated to Musorgsky, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov, the greatest Russian composers. At the Musorgsky festival in 1989, all the composer’s operas were performed - Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, a concert performance of The Sorochinsky Fair, The Marriageand highlights of Salammbo as originally orchestrated by the composer. The festival dedicated to the 100th anniversary since the birth of Prokofiev presented audiences with four of his operas - The Fiery Angel, War and Peace, Love for Three Oranges and The Gambler. The Fiery Angel, one of the festival premieres, staged by British director David Freeman, was named best production of 1992 in Japan. Prokofiev’s operas were not staged at the Mariinsky Theatre for a lengthy period, and the theatre paid tribute and respect to the most important Russian opera composer of the 20th century with this festival and further productions of Betrothal in a Monastery (1996), Semyon Kotko (1999) and War and Peace (2000). The Rimsky-Korsakov in the 20th Century festival staged the composer’s monumental operatic works - The Maid of Pskov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maid Fevronia the epic opera Sadko, Autumn Song, Kashchei the Immortal and a concert performance of The Tsar’s Bride.
The tradition of Promenade concerts accessible to all was restored in the 1991-92 season, their rich and varied programmes intending to draw the widest possible audience. The theatre’s symphonic concerts are now firmly established. The Mariinsky Opera Company and Symphony Orchestra perform at international festivals including those in Baden-Baden, Salzburg, Rotterdam, Rome and Mikkeli.
Since 1993, Valery Gergiev has been the organiser and artistic director of the annual International Stars of the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg. One of the main characteristics of this festival is its tradition to stage all the premieres of the current season. Over the years, festival premieres have included Verdi’s Aida and Strauss’ Salome (1995), Tchaikovsky’s Mazepa, Bizet’s Carmen and Prokofiev’s The Gambler (1996) and two versions of Shostakovich’s opera - Katerina Izmailova (1995) and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1996). In 1997, there was Wagner’s Parsifal, heralding the start of the current Wagnerian period at the Mariinsky Theatre, and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov in the composer’s original orchestration. In 1998, the festival presented another of Wagner’s operas, Der Fliegende Hollander, and, in 1999, Lohengrin, the opera through which St Petersburg first became acquainted with Wagner‘s works more than a century ago. As a salute to the imperial traditions of the theatre, Verdi’s La forza del destino was restored with its original sets, costumes and mise-en-scenes, thereby permitting the Petersburg public to see the opera as performed during Verdi’s lifetime.
The 1999 festival saw the premiere of Prokofiev’s opera Semyon Kotko which received four Golden Masks, Russia’s highest theatrical prize. The highlight of the next festival proved to be the Mariinsky Theatre-Metropolitan Opera co-production of Prokofiev’s epic opera War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s novel. It is noteworthy that, at the turn of this century as it did at the last, the theatre once more planned a grand production of Wagner’s tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. In 2000, the opera Das Rheingold was staged, followed by Die Walkure in 2001. That year was especially rich in premieres including Verdi’s operas Macbeth, Un ballo in maschera and Otello. As part of the 2001 festival, there were performances of Araya’ s Tsefal i Prokris and Cimarosi’s Cleopatra, opening a new series of Treasures of the Mariinsky Theatre.
The Mariinsky Theatre was the first in Russia to start working with the world’s great opera houses - Covent Garden, Metropolitan Opera, the Opera Bastille, La Scala, La Fenice, Tel Aviv Opera and San Francisco Opera. Operas by non-Russian composers began to be performed in the original language, which had the additional advantage of helping the Mariinsky Opera Company adopt world opera trends.
The success of the Opera Company is ensured by its highly talented singers who are able to enrich any production, either classical or contemporary. It is no mere chance that Mariinsky Opera singers perform on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses, demonstrating the high level of the Russian operatic school. Alongside respected singers such as Bogacheva, Borodina, Gorokhovskaya, Dyadkova, Gorchakova, Shevchenko, Novikova, Galuzin, Gergalov, Marusin, Pluzhnikov, Putilin, Vaneyev and Okhotnikov, there is a now a new generation of young talented performers including Anna Netrebko, Irina Dzhoieva, Yevgeny Nikitin, Olga Trifonova, Vasily Gerello, Ildar Abdrazakov, Daniil Shtoda and Irina Mataeva.
Today, the Mariinsky Opera Company is a natural blend of experience, traditions and youthful energy. Its soloists perform not just on their home stage but at leading opera houses throughout the world. Once again, following a lengthy interruption, the theatre is playing host to world premieres of productions of operas by contemporary composers, among them Rodion Shchedrin’s The Enchanted Wanderer, Alexander Smelkov’s The Brothers Karamazov and Nikolai Karetnikov’s The Mystery of the Apostle Paul. In the 1990s and at the start of this century works by Richard Wagner returned to the repertoire, among them his Der Ring des Nibelungen, performed – as are other operatic works – in the original language. European classics are represented by operas by Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz, Donizetti, Leoncavallo, Puccini, Bizet, Rossini, Richard Strauss, Janácek, Bartók, Britten and other composers. In line with tradition, the repertoire is based on operas by Russian composers including Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.