The history of the Mariinsky Opera Company dates back to 1783 when Empress Catherine II issued a decree on the establishment of a theatre committee “to direct plays and music.” “… A Russian theatre is needed so that it exists not just for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas,” the decree stated. Its publication coincided with the opening of the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre on Carousel Square (now Theatre Square). The theatre opened with a performance of Giovanni Paisiello’s opera Il mondo della luna. The lead roles were performed by Italian singers while the chorus comprised Russian choristers from the Court Cappella.
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.
Of the Russian performers who are connected with the establishment of the Mariinsky Opera Company, two of the most important were Pyotr Zlov (bass) and Yelizaveta Sandunova (mezzo-soprano).
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.
In the 1860s and 70s the Mariinsky Theatre witnessed the world premieres of operas by Alexander Serov (Judith, Rognedaand The Power of the Fiend), Alexander Dargomyzhsky (The Stone Guest), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (The Maid of Pskov), Modest Musorgsky (Boris Godunov) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (The Oprichnik and Vakula the Smith). The first production of an opera by Richard Wagner at a Russian theatre was also staged by the Mariinsky Opera Company with Lohengrin in 1868.
For a long time, the Imperial Italian Opera gave performances opposite the Mariinsky Theatre. Its performances featured the most outstanding representatives of vocal art in Europe. The virtuoso singing skills of Giovanni Battista Rubini, Pauline Viardot, Antonio Tamburini, Erminia Frezzolini, Angiolina Bosio, Enrico Tamberlick, Giovanni Mario, Giulia Grisi, Adelina Patti, Camillo Everardi and Angelo Mazini exerted a tremendous influence on Russian opera singers and to a great extent defined the tastes and needs of St Petersburg’s opera-going audiences. Thanks to the Italian Opera Company, Russian audiences had the opportunity to discover the works of Giuseppe Verdi at almost the same time as audiences at theatres in Europe. And the world premiere of Verdi’s opera La forza del destino, commissioned by the Board of the Imperial Theatres, took place in St Petersburg in 1862.
With time it became the custom for young opera singers to be sent abroad by the Board of the Imperial Theatres to perfect their vocal technique after graduating from the Conservatoire, and only after that would they perform on the Russian stage.
Many performers studied vocals independently while on holiday in Milan or Paris. Among them were the finest singers of the Mariinsky Theatre – Ivan Melnikov, Ippolit Pryanishnikov, Ivan Yershov, Maria Dolina, Mikhail Koryakin, Valentina Kuza, Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya and Daria Leonova – it would be impossible to list them all as there were so very many. Even Fyodor Chaliapin, who did not study abroad, heard Tamberlick and Mario at the Imperial Italian Opera and, as an erudite man sensitive to the vocal art form, discovered much that was useful to his own self from their performances. Edouard Stark wittily noted that the motto of many Russian singers of the time was a rephrasing of Nikolai Nekrasov’s “You may not be an actor, but you are duty bound to be a singer.”
Russia has always been famous for its voices, and at the Mariinsky Theatre in the capital there were no singers of poor ability. The bass Vasily Vasiliev the first was famed for his exceptional voice, which in terms of power, energy and beauty was considered one of the finest in Europe, but the absence of any acting skills proved to be his weak side. The bass singer Platon Radonezhsky, a singer with a rich and unusually powerful voice that covered two octaves, had a similar attitude to stage images, and he did not eve try to act, for which his contemporaries nicknamed him “the melodic cannon”. Bass singer Alexander Antonovsky also had a phenomenally powerful voice, but he, too, did not become an outstanding opera singer as he considered that the most important thing in singing was the voice and only the voice, and he couldn’t understand why many impresarios preferred Fyodor Chaliapin to him.
Bass Konstantin Serebryakov had a beautiful timbre of voice (basso profundo), natural, songful and beautiful in tone. In the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila at the Mariinsky Theatre, in the scene where Ruslan meets the “Head”, a group of basses from the chorus were placed inside the “Head” who sang its role in unison. When Serebryakov joined the company, he alone performed the role of the “Head” – in terms of the density of sound, the performer’s voice yielded nothing to the group of chorus singers.
The editor of France’s Le Figaro newspaper declared in an interview with Sergei Diaghilev of Dmitry Smirnov’s voice that “I would give four Carusos for one Smirnov.” It is said that during a tour to Paris Enrico Caruso asked the impresario of the Italian Opera Company with which he was touring to drop Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles from the repertoire. He justified his request by saying that “Now Russian tenor Dmitry Smirnov is performing here, and he sings the role of Nadir better than I.” Fyodor Chaliapin lamented “Why am I not a tenor? What a voice! After Mitya’s performance of the Prince’s cavatina you feel that you have been beaten.” Smirnov was a true master of his art on a huge scale had a supreme command of vocal technique.