To judge from the German buses outside and the tour groups within, the Maly caters to a decidedly populist crowd. Giselle, 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.