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.

The problem lay in the fact that thoughtful vocals, comprehensible words and the goal of creating an image as an actor, something Mikhail Glinka fought for in Russian opera, were replaced by “pure singing”. Opera began to transform itself, as the composer Alexander Serov accurately noted, into a “costumed concert”. And this “concert” continued right up to the close of the 19th century when a new generation of opera singers appeared – Mikhail Koryakin, Fyodor Stravinsky, Medea and Nikolai Figner, Ivan Yershov, Leonid Sobinov, Yekaterina Mravina, Maria Slavina and Fyodor Chaliapin. The latter elevated the role of the singer and its significance in an opera to unattainable heights.

His immense love of theatre, his phenomenal liking for work, his artistic receptiveness and his rare talent for being able to learn from others resulted in Fyodor Chaliapin becoming the greatest singer in Russia in just three or four years. He harmoniously combined the skills of a vocalist, artist and actor in one being and he created a performing style that western critics would go on to label as the “Russian performing style”. He transformed opera into a synthesis of arts – dramatic and vocal, thus bringing about reform in operatic theatre. For him, any image on the stage was a complete creation in which the music and the words, the make-up and the costume and the mimics and the gestures all combine to form the hero’s character. Chaliapin’s talent turned each role into a masterpiece on stage that became the standard for future generations of performers.

At the Mariinsky Theatre, where Chaliapin’s path to international glory began and which he directed in the first years after the Russian Revolution (1918 – 1920), the singer performed as Boris Godunov and Varlaam, Susanin, the Demon, Salieri, Aleko, Don Quichotte, Ruslan and Farlaf (Ruslan and Lyudmila), the Miller (Rusalka), Yeryomka (The Power of the Fiend), Dosifei (Khovanshchina), Ivan the Terrible (The Maid of Pskov), Holofernes (Judith), Galitsky (Prince Igor), Vyazminsky (The Oprichnik), Prince Vladimir and the Traveller (Rogneda), Vereisky (Dubrovsky), Panas (Christmas Eve), the Viking Merchant (Sadko), Gremin (Eugene Onegin), Mephistopheles (in the operas by Gounod and Boito), Nilakantha (Lakmé), Tonio (I pagliacci), Zuniga (Carmen), the Bailiff (Werther) and Don Basilio (Il barbiere di Siviglia).

One of the first opera singers to sense the need to perfect acting skills to create more convincing images in opera was Maria Slavina. She was considered the most talented. For almost forty years the singer worked in this ensemble and she was the darling of the company and the public, who secretly christened her “the Queen of the Mariinsky Theatre.”

The names of Medea and Nikolai Figner are closely linked with the premiere of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, one of the Mariinsky Theatre’s most important ever premieres, which took place in 1890. In this opera, Medea Figner performed as Liza, Nikolai Figner appeared as Herman and Maria Slavina sang as the Countess. The premiere was a phenomenal success and The Queen of Spades has remained in the Mariinsky Theatre’s repertoire ever since.

Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya had a contralto voice which was amazingly beautiful and velvety in timbre which had a range of over two octaves. It is a well-known fact that she consulted Vasily Samoilov, an actor with the Alexandrinsky Theatre, on stage performing skills. Maria Dolina was not as beautiful as Maria Slavina, Medea Figner, Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya and other fellow colleagues – what was beautiful was her surprisingly pleasant sounding contralto voice. Moreover, the singer had a dazzling gift as an actress, and she deeply considered each and every role, managing to distance herself from the standard model.

Fyodor Stravinsky exerted colossal influence. At the time when he was working at the theatre the singer was a shining example of what a true opera singer should be like on the stage. The cinger took – for the time – an unusual approach to creating an operatic role: most of the time he spent at his writing desk. Having studied the opera’s content the singer would turn to his vast library (he was one of St Petersburg’s best-known bibliophiles) and then he would take pencils and paints and put down on paper the features of the external appearance of the character as he saw him. Then he would study the musical material. In terms of his method for working on roles and in terms of the huge significance he apportioned to acting and precisely uttered vocals, this outstanding artist was Chaliapin’s direct predecessor.

Maria Kuznetsova-Benois was an opera singer at a time of change. In opera at the start of the 20th century, when new performing styles that were incompatible with existing canons were becoming increasingly popular, she was one of the first singers who caught onto these trends. With a great sense of form and line, she devoted much attention to the movements of the stage character. Isadora Duncan’s visit to Russia to perform at concerts did not pass her by either – the singer attended reformist ballet master Michel Fokine’s dance class. Later, both in Russia and abroad, she gave public concerts at which she performed various folk dances to great acclaim. Moreover, Kuznetsova-Benois added to the Mariinsky Theatre’s legions of beauties and was secretly given the soubriquet of “the Russian Dame”.

New trends in theatre art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were expressed in the desire for artistic integrity of all of a performance’s components and which resulted in the strengthening of the role of the stage director and designer when working on a production, could be seen at the Mariinsky Theatre too, where they were, first and foremost, associated with the World of Art group of Alexandre Benois and Alexander Golovin. The latter took the post of Principal Designer of St Petersburg’s Imperial Theatres in 1902.

In 1909 Vsevolod Meyerhold came to the Mariinsky Theatre. For his debut at the capital city’s opera house the young director and innovator selected his favourite opera – Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. At rehearsals Meyerhold stubbornly insisted the performers meet the tasks he set them, explaining that true expression of acting singers would only appear when their every movement on stage would be natural and beautifully measured with the music and the vocals.
The influence on the operatic stage of such a vivid figure as Vsevolod Meyerhold was a unique phenomenon, but it played a huge role in the development of opera. As well as Tristan und Isolde, at the Mariinsky Theatre Meyerhold staged Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1911), Richard Strauss’ Elektra (1913), Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest (1917) and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (1918). Alexander Golovin was the designer of the sets and costumes of these productions.

One of Meyerhold’s last works for the Mariinsky Theatre was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Here the stage director met a master of Russian theatre set painting, the outstanding Russian artist Konstantin Korovin who designed for many operas by Russian operas at the Mariinsky Theatre. These included such works as Modest Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia and Sadko. Konstantin Korovin designed Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan and Mikhail Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila together with Alexander Golovin.

Following the Revolution, the theatre’s Opera Company ran into difficulties due to the fact that many of the Mariinsky Theatre’s finest singers had emigrated. The remaining staff, which had all but fallen apart, had to build up a company, talented young performers working together with and learning from Ivan Yershov, Pavel Andreyev, Vasily Sharonov and Walter Bosse who had not abandoned the country.

As early as 1918 the theatre had taken on such talented singers as Rozalia Gorskaya (soprano) and Pavel Zhuravlenko (bass), who pursued the ideals established by Chaliapin in their art. Pavel Zhuravlenko was the kind of universal actor-singer who shone in productions in classical opera houses and to his dying day still worked to perfect his musicianship, enchanting his colleagues, critics and audiences in  Il barbiere di Siviglia, The Golden Cockerel, Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Love for Three Oranges and The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Rozalia Gorskaya, a surprisingly delicate woman, had a beautiful and heartfelt voice and was very emotional and musical. In her there was some kind of sad note that perfectly matched the women she portrayed on staged – the Snow Maiden, Juliette, Violetta in  La traviata and Marfa in  The Tsar’s Bride.

In a short space of time the company had regained its former strength. Its ranks swelled with new performers in the 20s and 30s. These included Valentina Pavlovskaya and Nikolai Kuklin, whose powerful and compelling voices and magnificent vocal skills allowed the theatre to introduce works by outstanding contemporary composers to the repertoire, among them Richard Strauss’ Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang.

Nikolai Pechkovsky, a tenor of great dramatic talent who created unsurpassed images as Herman, Otello, José and Prince Golitsyn, joined the theatre in 1924. Sofia Preobrazhenskaya came in 1928 and continued the traditions of outstanding singers of the old Mariinsky Theatre, from Daria Leonova to Maria Slavina, giving unforgettable performances as the Countess, the Nurse, Joan and Marfa. After her, the mezzo-soprano group saw the likes of Olga Mshanskaya, Tamara Smirnova and Nadezhda Velter.

Olga Mshanskaya joined the former Mariinsky Theatre on the advice of Fyodor Chaliapin. The beautiful and intensely warm timbre of her voice, her stunning on-stage appearance, musicality and capacity for work soon saw the young singer promoted to one of the company’s leading mezzo-sopranos.

Roza Izgur was a performer of incredible emotional power. The singer achieved true drama in her performances of the roles of Luisa Miller, Tatiana, Liza and Desdemona.

The beginning of Georgi Nelepp’s coincided with a period of the intense development of a new repertoire reflecting the age. His natural talent, trembling voice with its richly varied shades and his incredible love of work made the singer one of the true masters of Soviet opera.

The handsome baritone Vladimir Slivinsky had an extremely beautiful voice, noble stage appearance, a kind of special, aristocratic build, intelligence and the ability to wear a tail-coat well. It was not by chance that he enjoyed phenomenal success, enchanting colleagues and audiences in such roles as Eugene Onegin, Yeletsky, Renato and Giorgio Germont.

Sergei Migai, who had a staggeringly beautiful and sonorous voice, was more venerable and experienced when he came to the theatre. He almost copied Slivinsky’s roles, but as Gryaznoi (The Tsar’s Bride) he was unequalled. His marvellous voice was exceptionally well suited for both the role of Rigoletto and for the role of Mizgir, enchanting audiences with its softness and heartfelt conviction.

In 1926 Mark Reizen, a famed bass of the post-Chaliapin era, joined the theatre. Audiences loved the tall, stately and handsome singer with his magical voice in his greatest roles – Boris Godunov, Dosifei, Gremin and Mephistopheles.

In 1931 the theatre’s youth section was joined by Olga Kashevarova. The singer subsequently performed lead roles in the theatre’s repertoire for thirty years. She possessed a beautiful voice covering a vast range, a magnificent stage temperament and musical expressiveness. Her art encompassed both lyrical and dramatic roles – Kuma Nastasia in  The Enchantress, Liza in  The Queen of Spades, Olga in  The Maid of Pskov, Leonora in  Il trovatore and even the character comedy roles of Oxana in  Christmas Eve and the Cook in  The Tale of Tsar Saltan.

In 1932 the theatre’s youth group was also joined by Tamara Smirnova. In a short time she had been promoted to the rank of soloist and she created many expressive images in classical and contemporary operas. Of particular note were her Carmen and Amneris, which the singer performed throughout her long and fruitful life on the stage.

At that time the Opera Company was famous, as before, not just for its magnificent voices, but also for its excellent vocal school. Thanks to its powerful singers, in those years the theatre reached unattainable heights and was head and shoulders above the Bolshoi Theatre in the capital. In the late 1930s and immediately following the war, a large number of talented performers were transferred to Moscow. Leningrad was left without Vera Davydova, Maria Maksakova, Elena Stepanova, Yevgenia Verbitskaya, Sergei Migai, Georgi Nelepp, Mark Reizen and Vladimir Slivinsky. Naturally the loss of such outstanding singers was initially felt very deeply. The remaining members of the company, however, bore this trial with dignity.

In the post-war years the Mariinsky Theatre took on a large number of performers who quickly assimilated the new repertoire and proved themselves in new productions. Working with the theatre’s leading soloists and garnering stage experience, the young generation confidently became masters of their art. All performers accepted by the company had natural musicianship and beautiful voices. Some stood out as vocalists while others brought supreme artistry to the stage. The most talented soloists included the sopranos Nina Serval (1941), Valentina Maximova (1949), Bella Kalyada (1950) and Rimma Barinova (1954), mezzo-sopranos Lydia Grudina (1944), Lyudmila Filatova (1958) and Tatiana Kuznetsova (1953), tenors Ivan Bugaev (1946), Matvei Gavrilkin (1956) and Vladimir Kravtsov (1958), baritones Ivan Alexeyev (1945), Konstantin Laptev (1952), Vladimir Zhuravlenko (1955) and Lev Morozov (1959) and basses Lavrenty Yaroshenko (1946), Nikolai Krivulya (1953), Vladimir Morozov (1959) and Boris Shtokolov (1959).

Galina Kovalyova, who joined the theatre in 1960, stood out with her beautiful, silvery and light voice which was unusually suitable for the roles she performed (Lucia di Lammermoor, Rosina, Natasha Rostova, Gilda, Violetta, Marguerite, Volkhova, the Swan Princess and Marfa).

From the 1960s to the 1980s the aforementioned singers became acclaimed masters of their art, having seized the baton from those soloists who had joined the company in the 1930s. The new generation learnt from the “people of the 50s”. It was at this time that the theatre was joined by performers who later starred not only on the Russian stage but on the international music scene as well. These included, first and foremost, the tenor Vladimir Atlantov (1963) and the baritone Sergei Leiferkus (1978). They were the first Soviet singers of the post-war generation to be able to demonstrate abroad that the Russian performing style beautifully followed the international laws of bel canto. Their baton was later taken up by the talented Vladimir Chernov.

In 1964 the theatre signed up its future prima donna Irina Bogacheva. After training in Italy, the singer immediately occupied a leading position as a mezzo-soprano, performing myriad roles in the classical and contemporary repertoires. She was acclaimed as one of the greatest performers of the role of Carmen.

The bass Nikolai Okhotnikov and the tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov made their debuts at the theatre in 1971. Brilliantly trained and with their beautiful and strong voices, they very soon joined the theatre’s front ranks of singers.

From 1987 to 1997 Bulat Minzhilkiev worked with the Mariinsky Opera Company. He had a rare voice that was powerful and fantastically beautiful. Minzhilkiev was not just a lead performer of the bass repertoire but, thanks to his spiritual qualities, the darling of the entire company as well. He performed lead roles in the operas Aida, Boris Godunov, Don Carlo, Katerina Ismailova, Faust and Khovanshchina among others.

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, Janáček, 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.

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