The year 2018 was the year of Claude Debussy. Last March the world marked 100 years since the death of the great French composer. The event led to the creation of monographic cycles, special concerts, and series of lectures at many venues of the Old and New Worlds. Valery Gergiev has prepared a precious gift for the public: for the first time ever he will perform the mystery play Le Martyre de saint Sébastien in St Petersburg (previously only the five-part suite was performed at concerts). The play premiered in 1911. Back then the Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio decided to scandalize the Parisian public with a Diaghilev-like production (a controversial story, colourful decorations, a vocal and choreographic show with Russian dancers in the lead roles, and new music commissioned to a famous composer). His mystery play has only been staged at theatres a couple of times. And every single production underwent extensive cuts: no one wanted either to perform or listen to more than five hours of elaborate music text written in Old French. Conductors and stage directors tried to save only the music fragments: symphony intermissions, chorus, vocal, and dance routines. However, it was almost impossible to separate them from the story: the lyrics of the arioso and duets sound way too confusing out of context; in some cases, the soloists perform their text with the orchestra, in others they have to mimic the scenes. That is why Le Martyre de saint Sébastien is mostly known through recordings. Those parts that can link various music elements are taken from the great mass of text; the recording booklet has commentary explaining what the authors meant to convey during the performance; the issue of balancing out three orchestral sets and the narrator is resolved in the studio.
Rare concert performances only fuel the public’s interest to this marginal work of Debussy’s. If Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s French response to Tristan, then his decision to work on Le martyre de saint Sébastien (taken at the time when the text was not yet written) was Debussy’s plunge into the genre of mystery. He was so badly burnt emotionally by Parsifal that, though pantheist and sceptic, he wanted to step into the then uncharted territory of mysterious revelations and Divine grace.
Fairytale-like excerpts from Prokofiev’s and Ravel’s positive Piano Concerto are a stark contrast to the mystery play’s somber fabric. They will be performed by Alexei Volodin, a frequent participant of the festival, who is equally impressive at performing classical, romantic, and neoclassical repertory.