This is a big, handsome, fascinating book. Written at the suggestion, indeed the insistence, of its artistic director, Valery Gergiev, it chronicles the history, trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg from its opening in 1860 until today, in the context of the city's and the country's political and cultural history from Imperial through Soviet to post-Soviet times. The late John Ardoin spent the 1995-96 season in St. Petersburg, attending innumerable concerts, rehearsals, and performances of opera and ballet, and talking with countless people connected with the Theater. He tells the story of the Mariinsky's destructions and rebirths, its name change to Kirov and back again; the stories of its star singers and dancers, composers, conductors, choreographers, ballet masters, designers, architects, administrators, of the music and ballet schools it has generated, and its struggle to maintain its traditions while moving ahead. Ardoin describes the internal and external intrigues, scandals, and rivalries, the artistic, economic, and political problems that led to the defection of leading artists. He quotes from books and memoirs, such as Stravinsky's, whose father was a renowned bass.
An excellent interviewer, the author lets his subjects speak for themselves in sections that are among the book's highlights. The most fascinating portrait is that of Valery Gergiev, who emerges as an inspired, charismatic conductor and a man of extraordinary, multifaceted gifts, inexhaustible energy, unshakable determination and self-confidence, high ideals, and unwavering dedication to his work. Ardoin clearly idolizes Gergiev and credits him with restoring the Mariinsky to its present greatness, yet he remains aware of the problems inherent in Gergiev's overextended lifestyle and compulsive work habits.
Most of the chapters alternate between past and present, and readers may find the frequent references to people and events mentioned in much earlier chapters a bit bewildering. They may also be somewhat overwhelmed by Ardoin's admirably prodigious research and insistence on including everything he knows: he lists everyone who ever worked at the Theater, and gives a blow-by-blow account of every performance past and present--its date, cast, composer, conductor, designer, success or failure. Of the resulting multitude of names, many are totally unknown outside Russia, but the excellent pictures, arranged by periods, bring them to vibrant life. --Edith Eisler