Even before its official opening on May 2, the new Mariinsky Theater building was at the center of controversy. The $630 million, 850,000 square feet structure runs the length of an entire block in St. Petersburg’s beloved theater square, nestled behind the original 19th century structure and connected to it by a footbridge. While the staggering cost to the state has drawn ire, it’s the look of the new building that has been at the center of criticism.
St. Petersburg is famous for the intentional and logical planning given it by Peter I, which was at once European, classical, and baroque. With so much intentionality behind the appearance of Russia’s second-largest city and cultural capital, it perhaps should have come as little surprise to the architects at Canadian firm Diamond Schmitt that their vision for the new Mariinsky might be met with naysayers denouncing the structure’s inconsistency with Petersburg’s classical aesthetic.
But that’s par for the course, especially considering that many in Petersburg and Russia in general revere the original theater as a lasting symbol of Russian culture and influence in the artistic world. World-famous for its eponymous ballet company and opera, and having been the place of premieres for some of the most important artists and works in the country’s history – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker opened here in 1892 – it may be understandable that any proposal to augment or add on to the existing theater would be met with skepticism and strong opinions.
The initial idea to add on to the existing theatre came at the behest of Mariinsky’s artistic director and conductor Valery Gergiev, who wanted to bring the more than 150-year-old theatre into a new era, and to capitalize on modern improvements in technology and acoustics that restricted the original. His wish, however, turned out to not be as easy to realize, as the initial plan for the new building suffered a false start. In the early 2000s, a juried contest was held to select which architects would be chosen to design the new Mariinsky addition, resulting in a win by French architect Dominique Perrault, whose portfolio included designing the French National Library. After beginning construction and pouring millions into his design, the construction was abandoned in 2007 due to unforeseen problems with the planned structure.
After that first unsuccessful attempt to build a new Mariinsky building, the architects at Diamond Schmitt won a second competition and began construction of their vision for the new building. As construction continued, criticisms were raised that the structure looked more like a sports recreation complex or a shopping center, with its limestone and glass exterior and boxy, plain shape. Its clean lines and subdued colors struck many as in contrast to the surrounding examples of neo-classical architecture painted in bright pastels. Many dubbed it “The Mariinsky Shopping Center” for its plain and utilitarian design. An online petition was started, gathering thousands of signatures, to raze the construction before it could even have a chance to be completed.
Jack Diamond, lead architect of the project, told Urban Toronto magazine that the firm had two objectives for its design. The first was to construct a modest, unpretentious building that complemented the original Mariinsky campus without competing with it or overpowering its regal, embellished design. The second objective was to respond to young people, who he says are making up an increasingly large portion of audience demographics at the theatre. “These are young people. They’re vibrant. They’re people on dates,” he said. He also responded to criticism about the exterior of the building in an interview with Radio Free Europe, saying, “People don’t like change. They like their old St. Petersburg, as I do, but I honor it by being modest on the exterior and giving them an opera house that can stand with the rest of the world.”
The interior of the structure includes an amber-colored, backlit onyx wall, which at night radiates through the façade of ceiling-to-floor glass windows and casts a warm glow into the surrounding street. Also inside are a glass staircase, six stages, six rehearsal rooms, and a decidedly traditional horseshoe-shaped, blonde wood auditorium seating 2000 people.
Vladimir Putin attended the star-studded inaugural night, featuring performances by Spanish singer Placido Domingo and leading contemporary ballerinas Uylana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva. Despite the controversy, Putin praised director Grigoriev for his efforts in bringing the Mariinsky into a new era, saying he “has succeeded not only in preserving the traditions of Russian opera and ballet but has also created the conditions for it to develop.”
Performances will be held in both the new and the old campuses, allowing for more performances and for the theatre to stay open to the public even while constructing and tearing down sets. Previously, during set up and take down, the theatre closed its doors to the public, losing potential revenue and turning away disappointed tourists. The 2013-2014 season opens in August.