Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
The whirlwind conductor Valery Gergiev is soon to bring his much-feted Russian company back to Britain - but this time they aim to trounce the West at its own masterpieces.
DEDICATED followers of opera and ballet have been ticking off the weeks until the end of a patchy Covent Garden season, waiting for the sparks to fly. Next month, the Kirov are back. Last summer, they sang and danced Russian masterworks with a cohesion and fervour that are rare on Western stages, reliant as they are on a fickle trickle of import-premium international stars.
This year, the St Petersburg 500 aim to repeat the collectivist lesson, only more daringly. The Kirov Opera will sing Verdi; the Kirov Ballet will perform, inter alia, Kenneth MacMillan's English-made Manon and George Balanchine's American Jewels. The Russians have gone into the business of carrying coals to Newcastle, intent on proving that they can not only trounce the West in its own works, but that their reserve teams are stronger than any first-night line-up from Naples to New York.
"Wait til you see our Aida," says Valery Gergiev, the Kirov's ubiquitous director. "Olga Borodina will sing second cast. The first Aida will be Larissa Diadkova - she is tremendous. But Borodina is world famous. About 15 Kirov singers regularly perform Verdi in the Met, La Scala, Vienna, Salzburg. I cannot imagine anyone having a full impression of the Kirov if they only see one performance of each opera and each ballet."
The Kirov residency, independently produced by the Hochhauser organisation, shimmers like a private yacht in a bog-standard British pond of funding grumbles and grudged enthusiasm. Last year's excitements still quicken the pulse. "I was very proud of the London season," reflects Gergiev over a riverside lunch. "It was an unusual atmosphere where public and artists and press - everyone - was proud to be part of it.'
He is flashing through London for 10 days, leading the Royal Festival Hall's jubilee concert, fine-tuning ROH arrangements, conducting the Philharmonia five times, talking to his record label - and all the while keeping a firm hand on his company back home. Faxes keep flowing to our lunch table.
Gergiev is the only working conductor who is also executive head of a major house - combining, he explains ruefully, the work of James Levine and Joseph Volpe at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as that of their two counterparts at City Ballet.
Five years as director, 13 as chief conductor, have taken a toll on his sultry exterior. The hair is thinning, the eyes sunken. His 48th birthday this month was toasted in mid-air. His young wife was in Russia, looking after baby Abisal, seven months old and sorely missed. "He is already showing some gift for melody," confides Gergiev, who sometimes does not see his child for weeks on end.
Commitment is his word for it. From the day he succeeded Yuri Temirkanov at the death of communism, Gergiev has devoted every waking hour to the theatre he refers to mostly by its tsarist name, the Mariinsky. As word of his conducting prowess spread, he was wooed abroad, but each link that Gergiev forged was hitched to his company. Music director in Rotterdam, principal guest at the Met, regular conductor in Vienna, Salzburg and London, each step was a foothold in the Kirov's touring or training plans. He once told me that he signed up with New York primarily to equip his team with technological know-how. "You can say many things about Valery Gergiev," he declares, "but I never put Mariinsky second. You either commit yourself, or you don't."
He expects the same fidelity from his artists. Those who serve are rewarded with international opportunities; the ones who place ego before duty are brusquely expelled and seldom seen again.
Gergiev's rule is autocratic and absolute. His table-talk is salted with admiration for authority. His father was a military man, his uncle was Stalin's favourite tank designer. But Gergiev is rooted in an older, wilder culture. He is a southerner, an Ossetian who bewails the Chechen war and treats Russians with reserve.
He was spotted early on by a deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, who, as Russian president, continues to visit the Kirov three or four times a year. "Putin appreciated the importance of culture for St Petersburg," says Gergiev. "He never gave me the impression that we spoke about minor things when I told him that culture is one of the strongest cards in our country's hand. He is slowly trying to move things forward. The greatest gain is stability. I wish him well, because I was tired of living in a country where every day something horrible happened. Russia was lacking a leader."
It is hard to argue with Gergiev that, in the arts at least, what is needed is cogent leadership. He points to the decline of the Bolshoi and wonders whether its 70-year-old artistic director, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, has the energy to mount the kind of revival that Gergiev undertook at half his age. "We need the Bolshoi to be strong," he says. "We are like two arms of Russian culture, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky."
His success has been so demonstrable that Gergiev can now dictate solutions to richer opera houses in the decadent West. "In Berlin," he relates, "my friend and colleague Daniel Barenboim had problems with public funding. I told him: you have to raise your own singers. You cannot just rely on big stars, where every performance costs you so much that you will never reach financial stability. You have to balance your artistic appetite with your investment in young and inexpensive artists."
He has much the same message for Covent Garden, which forsook its founding obligations towards English singers. "Mariinsky sends London a signal," says Gergiev. "If you want to live in harmony with your future, invest in your own talent."
The Verdi season should help to prove his point. When Placido Domingo appears at Covent Garden, he never meets a British singer. When Gergiev brought him to St Petersburg 10 years ago, it was to sing Otello with an untested house cast. "It was a great inspiration for our young singers to work with a world star in such great shape," recalls Gergiev, "the beginning of our work in Verdi."
Verdi was not what he had planned for London. The decision turned on a grim warning from Covent Garden that it might have "technical problems" with two big shows, Prokofiev's Gambler and Rimsky's Kitezh. Substituting Macbeth, Forza del destino and Ballo in maschera, long unseen in London, Gergiev added an Otello "because I wanted to make a statement that there is a great Russian tenor, Vladimir Galuzine, and the world should pay attention to him in this opera. I hope he, together with Jose Cura, will raise our confidence in the next 10 years, as Domingo and Pavarotti did in the last 30. I never speak about three tenors - there were only two."
This may be the last Kirov visit for a while. Next summer they are booked for New York, and, in 2003, Gergiev has global plans for the 50th anniversary of the death of Prokofiev, a composer whose operas he has restored to circulation. He is also preparing a massive festival for the 200th anniversary of St Petersburg, involving the Met, the Vienna Philharmonic and La Scala. After all, he smiles, "the city was built by Catherine the Great with Italian, French, German and English artists".
The central paradox of this extraordinary musician hinges on the role of the individual in our culture. On one hand, Gergiev acknowledges that the fortunes of the Kirov rest on his shoulders alone. On the other, he insists that "it's the spirit of collective commitment that makes us so strong". Somewhere in between lies an elusive truth.
15 May 2001: It's an uphill battle for the beauty of the Bolshoi as crowds stay away [review of the Bolshoi]
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]