In opera and ballet, the Kirov continues to innovate, even as it builds on historic strengths. Driving this winning formula are the titanic energies of its artistic director, Valery Gergievby Ivan Hewett / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
Few visiting opera and ballet companies bring such a tingle of anticipation as the Kirov. One reason may be its paradoxical air of being both central and interestingly marginal. Marginal, because its culture has a whiff of the exotic; central, because the company’s tradition is as weighty as anything the west can offer. This is the opera house where all Tchaikovsky’s operas were premiered, which nurtured great designers and directors like Benois and Meyerhold, and great singers, including Fyodor Chaliapin. But the ballet company’s tradition is even more stellar. It can truly claim to be the cradle of 19th-century classical ballet, as it was here that Marius Petipa wrought his great revolution in ballet, giving us a whole string of masterworks—including the three immortal Tchaikovsky ballets—that are still the heart of any company’s repertoire. Since then it has produced another choreographer of genius, Georges Balanchine, and transcendent dancers, several of whom, like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, went on to glittering careers in the west.
It would be so easy for the company to trade on its past, with lucrative tours of “glories of the Kirov” (or the Mariinsky, to give it the pre-revolutionary title the company has now reverted to). This to a degree has been the fate of the Kirov’s great Moscow-based rival, the Bolshoi, which is in the artistic doldrums. That the Kirov has managed to renew itself in financially straitened times is due in large part to the superhuman energy of the Kirov’s artistic and general director, Valery Gergiev.
Gergiev, the only conductor who scores a higher charisma rating than Simon Rattle, is also classical music’s most famous workaholic. One of his colleagues jokes that the reason Gergiev enjoys conducting so much is that it’s the only time he gets some peace and quiet away from the phone. He was appointed in 1988, just in time to deal with the collapse of the company’s subsidies following the fall of communism. He did it partly by negotiating some very astute deals with foreign promoters. The tours have had their ups and downs—the Kirov’s ill-prepared Verdi season in London in 2001 drew the worst reviews I’ve ever seen for a major company—but they have had their triumphs too, and kept the company financially afloat. This has persuaded Gergiev’s best dancers and singers to stick with the company rather than run after the first lucrative offer from the west. And this…