Dazzling White Nights

The prices are low and the standards high at St. Petersburg's summer music festival

MUSIC-lovers love to spend time in strange places. Bayreuth is an attractive town with an aristocratic pedigree, but only a Wagnerite attending the festival would choose to spend a night there, let alone the week it takes for the Ring cycle. Though horrifically overrun, baroque Salzburg in summer can be enchanting, but what justifies a stay of more than two days is a busy schedule of concerts and operas. You can see the sights of Spoleto, Aix-en-Provence, or Savonlinna (all very fine in various ways) in as little as one day. Thank heaven for the polished operas of Glyndebourne, in the rolling hills of East Sussex, less than two hours by rail from London's Victoria Station, which requires no overnight at all.

St. Petersburg is a very different proposition. Typical tours allot Russia's onetime capital three days, which is scarcely enough to scratch the surface. The State Hermitage Museum, chockablock with old masters to rival Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum or the Vatican, not to mention a stash of Impressionists that would be the envy of the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, would reward weeks of study; you're cheating yourself if you give it less than a full day. A summer palace in the countryside will easily fill another (there are many to choose from), which leaves a pitiful one more for the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Nevsky Prospekt, the Bronze Horseman, the parks, the churches ...

The few visitors likely to do St. Petersburg something like justice are those who come to stay for the music. This is at its best in late June, with the Stars of the White Nights Festival, named in ironic tribute to the nearly Arctic midsummer, when the sun barely dips below the horizon. Streetlights switched off in May stay off until September, double rainbows can unfurl at a quarter to midnight, and the sky (when clear) dissolves in ivory light, but as for stars of the astronomical variety -- for weeks not one pierces the veil of brightness, ever.
TEN years ago serious music-lovers did not consider St. Petersburg much of a priority. Then came the sudden flowering of the Kirov Opera and Orchestra. To balletomanes, the name Kirov evokes the dance company, the cradle of such talents as George Balanchine, Rudolph Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Even in its weakest years St. Petersburg's school and troupe ranked as the fountainhead of classicism. For most of the past half century, however, the Kirov Opera has shared with the ballet only a name and a home in the aqua-and-gold Mariinsky Theater. The operatic wing was thought of, if at all, as a bastion of invincible provincialism, undistinguished in every way. But in 1988 a new musical director took over: Valery Gergiev, then thirty-five, lately the chief conductor of the State Orchestra of Armenia. Within seasons he had catapulted the Kirov into the majors, not only in opera but also as a symphonic ensemble. By the mid-nineties Gergiev and the Kirov were fixtures in the West, touring frequently and producing a steady stream of audio and video recordings for Philips Classics. (For obvious reasons, the finest players are the ones who are taken on the road, but during the summer festival they are dependably in residence.) In opera the Kirov's production values might leave something to be desired, but the musicians' passion, commitment, and sense of spiritual adventure set the pulse racing. Confirmation of the Kirov miracle has come recently in the form of Gergiev's appointment as the first-ever principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, which is also presenting the Kirov company this month and next in a mini-season of little-known Russian operas.

It should come as no surprise that Gergiev is also the driving force behind Stars of the White Nights, now in its fifth year, which I have attended twice: first in 1994 and again last year. Both times I found the festival enthralling and unlike any Western counterpart I can think of -- occasionally seat-of-the-pants, always aiming for the brass ring. Curtain times reflected the prevailing condition of creative overdrive: they were wildly unpredictable. Sometimes the public would arrive punctually to find the auditorium bolted while Gergiev and his hardworking orchestra wrapped up a tardy rehearsal. "Wait until the players discover this is a free country," joked a visiting New Yorker well versed in Western-style union rules. In fact the players never grumbled, though the audience in the lobby might.

Gergiev is keenly aware of St. Petersburg's glorious musical past. Verdi's flawed, brooding masterpiece La Forza del Destino was written for the city. Virtually the entire history of Russian opera (Glinka, Borodin, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky) unfolded here. Berlioz and Wagner and Mahler came to present their scores before audiences of eager cognoscenti. Musicians are doing their job when they present the music that most engages them in the best way they know how, but Gergiev's programs almost always have an ulterior agenda: to celebrate St. Petersburg's ancient standing and to recapture it in the present. In reviving La Forza del Destino in 1994, Gergiev thus reverted to the all-but-forgotten original of 1862, whose tenor part is so demanding that Plácido Domingo himself is said to consider it unperformable. Gergiev's man -- the undaunted Armenian Gegam Grigorian -- passed the test, and what was revealed in the process was no preliminary sketch but a thrilling alternative to the Forza we know.

Last year Gergiev made music history by resuming St. Petersburg's long-abandoned Wagner tradition with Parsifal, a score unheard in Russia since 1918. As devotees know, this is site-specific music with a vengeance. Wagner wrote it for his own Festspielhaus in Bayreuth (which was built for his Ring cycle), and meant for it to be heard nowhere else. Many believe that its uniquely subtle orchestral palette is irreproducible in any other house. To my ears, the Mariinsky acoustic -- transparent yet bejeweled, responsive to the slightest breath -- proved more revelatory still. Gergiev's interpretation was revelatory too: diaphanously played, yet richly colored, impassioned, swiftly paced, the drama unblighted by the customary neurasthenia.

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