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Travel
Dazzling White Nights

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

by Matthew Gurewitsch

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.
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From the archives:

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  • 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.

    There are other musical venues in St. Petersburg, and other performing organizations, well worth exploring. The Shostakovich (or St. Petersburg, formerly the Leningrad) Philharmonic is housed opposite the Grand Hotel Europa in the so-called Large Concert Hall, a white-and-ruby-red affair across whose columns and crystal chandeliers on a clear June night the low northern sun sends dazzling half moons of honeyed light. Chamber music reigns at the gilt-and-stucco Small Concert Hall, a few steps down the Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's renascent Fifth Avenue. The Kirov often commandeers these lovely spaces, both of them blessed with warm, clear sound. (The seating, it must be said, is seldom the last word in comfort.) Music programs -- all in Cyrillic, which to the unpracticed eye may camouflage even familiar names to the point of inscrutability -- are posted all over town.

    By our standards, tickets to performances in St. Petersburg are a bargain. Scalpers charged $60 for the hottest ticket at last year's festival (the Kirov's double bill of mildly experimental choreography to Stravinsky), which was thought to be highway robbery. Seats for the Shostakovich Philharmonic's devastating performance of the Verdi Requiem, led by Mariss Jansons with an awesome chorus imported from Tallinn, went for just 50,000 rubles (at last summer's rate of exchange, about $8.50). I walked into recitals for 15,000 rubles ($2.60). A little busman's holiday at the Maly Theater, which, like the Kirov, divides its programs between opera and ballet, set me back 150,000 rubles ($25.50) -- serious money in the Russian economy, but 80 percent of the damage was a surcharge extorted from nonresidents. The surcharge, in varying percentages, is also levied at museums.

    To judge from the German buses outside and the tour groups within, the Maly caters to a decidedly populist crowd. Giselle, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote (the ballet) dominated the repertoire, alongside La Traviata and Don Giovanni, but there were some surprises, too. My visit was occasioned by a rare showing of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, a Rimsky-Korsakov fantasy my father (no opera fan) remembered fondly from his Russian youth. Besides, I wanted to check out the Kirov's competition. Entering, I was astonished to discover a second opera house as grand and ornate as the Mariinsky. The show was slick and broad, efficient and impersonal, with plenty of bright costumes and snazzy scene changes to catch the eye: good fun, but scarcely a treat for a snob. About town I noticed other theaters offering similar fare: nothing to tempt a serious music-lover away from the Kirov.

    BETWEEN performances, which is to say during the day, one is tempted to tick off first the Hermitage, then palace after palace. The country estates on everyone's A-list are as dazzling as advertised: sprawling, forget-me-not-blue Yekaterinburg, topped with gold onion domes, its façade jammed with butterscotch-colored giants, its rooms with overripe cherubs; chaste Pavlovsk, exuding decorum in each exquisite neoclassical interior; dignified Peterhof, a Baltic Versailles, surrounded by fountains and outbuildings all but infinite in their variety. On a forced march, though, they begin to feel interchangeable.

    Parks and gardens in the center of town offer welcome respite. A special favorite of mine is the slightly disheveled maze of the Letniy Sad, or Summer Garden, densely studded with handsome marble statuary. Refreshed by an hour beneath the canopy of towering trees, I set out to pay my respects to Peter the Great, visiting his three-room log cabin (painted to mimic brick), the tiny boat he learned to sail on, and a life-size wooden mannequin of him, dressed in his own French court dress, the wax face and hands molded from life, the hair Peter's own, clipped and saved in the hot summer of 1722. I also gave a good deal of time to the Russian State Museum, housed in various mansions, where one may trace the tectonic shifts in Russian art, from the age of icons, before Peter, to the eighteenth century, when fashionable St. Petersburg imported French and Italian painters by the cartload, and on to the nineteenth, when talented Russians learned their craft in Paris and brought it home.

    I also tiptoed into the Mosque, modeled on the resting place of Tamerlane, in Samarkand. Like virtually every other place of worship I visited in St. Petersburg, it bore the marks of long neglect. Yet deep in the sanctuary, scarcely visible in the gloom, perhaps four or five Muslims knelt at their quiet devotions. And at Kazan Cathedral, which the Communists coopted for their Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, where schoolchildren used to enjoy waxworks of the Spanish Inquisition, fervent young men with scraggly beards and well-turned-out women now ply icons with kisses. I also walked in on the baptism of a gurgling neonate surrounded by adoring family and friends. After years of suppression, the opiate of the people is staging quite a comeback, even as Western-style materialism moves in. In the heart of the Petrograd quarter, north of the Neva, where tourists seldom stray, one finds princely turn-of-the-century apartment blocks in various states of decrepitude and reclamation, along with high-ticket fashion outlets (Escada, Bally). Suits in one store, I was told, started at $1,500 -- but not a nickel is spent on window dressing. The grime-encrusted façades of the chic shopping boulevards look as unkempt, bereft, and Godforsaken as those of the old-fashioned butcher shops in the Soviet-style working-class neighborhoods.

    ST. Petersburg in our time is not one city but two -- both to a high degree unreal -- superimposed on a single ground plan. For most of the twentieth century one of those cities was no more than a memory. Glittering St. Petersburg! Peter the Great's new capital on the flat marshlands of the Gulf of Finland, known informally as Petersburg and fondly as Peter, created ex nihilo by imperial fiat in 1703, was the Czar's "window on Europe," under the protection of his patron saint. The proud beauty of this baroque "Venice of the North" was mirrored in the waters of the vast Baltic, the broad Neva, and threading canals. The city was the north's de facto Paris, too, an intellectual and cultural magnet where the language of those who mattered was French.

    The Communist era, of course, put an end to all that. The city's native character ceased to exist except in the pages of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky -- and the antic Andrei Bely, whose magnum opus, Petersburg, Vladimir Nabokov ranked among the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century prose, trailing only Ulysses and Kafka's Metamorphosis, and ahead of the first half of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. In St. Petersburg's place lay grim Leningrad. Leningrad: a capital no longer, forsaken by officialdom for old, backward Moscow, yet vouchsafed the honor of perpetuating the memory of the prophet of the Red ideology; a border fortress on the plains, exposed to much of an apocalyptic century's cruelest war, plague, death, and famine, its endurance unbroken by the Nazi siege of 900 days. Leningrad: a stage set for newsreels, with Shostakovich blaring on the soundtrack. For Bely, this would have been the purely imaginary place. "If Petersburg is not the capital," he wrote at the start of his novel, "then there is no Petersburg. It only appears to exist."

    Today Leningrad lingers in seven decades' worth of dirt and dilapidation. It lingers, too, in a Soviet legacy of bureaucracy, suspicion, underhandedness, and xenophobia. A foreigner divines these things in subtle and not-so-subtle attitudes ranging from apathy and lack of cooperation to chips on the shoulder. Despite those surcharges at museums, palaces, and theaters, whereby foreign visitors (comparatively few in number) in effect subsidize the admission of Russians, few provisions -- multilingual wall labels, foreign-language tours -- are made for the foreigner's convenience. (You want an English-speaking guide? Bring your own.) There are museums within museums, pavilions within parks, each requiring a separate trip to a different, usually inconvenient, ticket office. Sooner or later one bridles, to no immediate avail.

    But Leningrad never quite extinguished the last sparks of the St. Petersburg spirit. Call it counterrevolutionary, call it ideologically unsound, but after the war Soviet officialdom spent lavish sums to replicate shattered palaces to picture-perfection. Despite what must have been sore temptation, they kept their hands off the artistic treasures of the Hermitage, which could so easily have been converted into much-needed cash. They diverted funds from utilitarian uses to maintain the prestige of the ballet. At the same time, they preserved a cult of painful memories: even now, sooner or later almost any tour through any palace leads to a display of blurry black-and-whites of charred roof beams on the grand-ballroom floor.

    Today movers and shakers in government and private enterprise are working feverishly toward the city's tercentennial, in 2003. What they hope to conjure into existence, as near as I can picture, is a third-millennium St. Petersburg fully worthy of the name, unreal no longer: spires and domes and pastel palaces glistening like new, harmonizing with construction of the present age, peopled by citizens of cosmopolitan outlook. A tall order, but Peter is changing quickly. Meanwhile, there is the music.


    Booking travel in Russia has not grown much easier since the fall of communism. Even self-reliant travelers are well advised to turn over the nuisance details (visa, land arrangements) to a knowledgeable agent. For music tours in Russia, packages or customized, Allegro Enterprises (212-666-6700; 800-666-3553 outside New York) gets high marks; not incidentally, the company is also the exclusive U.S. outlet for tickets to the Kirov and other leading Russian companies. If you are traveling alone or in your own small group, it saves precious hours to hire a car and driver for all excursions to the St. Petersburg countryside and also for ambitious days of sightseeing in town. Rates quoted by concierges at major hotels are high, but independent operators ask for much less and will negotiate. I found Dmitry Ageev (mobile phone 987-52-32), recommended by a filmmaker working at the Kirov, to be thoroughly reliable. He drives safely, his car is clean and smoke-free, and he puts in a long day for $100 (negotiable). Shorter runs, too, are very reasonable.


    Matthew Gurewitsch is a cultural essayist and lecturer in New York City.

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Dazzling White Nights; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 46 - 51.

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