Valery Gergiev, master of all he surveys at St. Petersburg’s renowned Mariinsky Theatre, is a man who famously cannot sit still. Named artistic director and chief conductor in 1988 and promoted to general director in 1996, he has since expanded his portfolio with the construction of an acoustically exemplary new concert hall as well as a second state-of-the-art opera house, complements to the glamorous imperial jewel box he was originally recruited to run. Between performances at home and on tour with the Mariinsky Opera, not to mention music directorships and guest engagements around the world, Gergiev keeps a breakneck schedule, and that is how he likes it.
I won’t say this happens every five minutes, but since the international lockdowns began, Gergiev has called me now and then to let me know what’s playing on Mariinsky TV, a free streaming channel that serves up opera, ballet, and symphonic concerts nonstop. The first time Gergiev rang, the attraction was a rare archival video of Prokofiev’s sprawling War and Peace, graced by an incandescent, very junior ensemble member named Anna Netrebko as the naïve and impulsive Natasha. The next time, Gergiev was recommending Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, jolted to tragic life by Maxim Aksenov, punching way above his weight as Gherman, the doom-struck gambler.
Another hot tip came in about Yaroslavna: The Eclipse. Nebulous story line, I thought, and garish visuals. The choreography by the 30-something Vladimir Varnava—on whom the Russian dance establishment is placing big bets—collapses under the load of debts to iconic Fokine (Polovtsian Dances), Nijinsky (Le Sacre du Printemps), Balanchine (The Prodigal Son), Grigorovich (Spartacus), and Bob Fosse (Cabaret). The saving grace was an epic yet insinuating score by the late, obscure Boris Tishchenko, whom Shostakovich just so happened to think his best student.
From the start of the pandemic, locked-down audiences have been flocking to Mariinsky TV. To the best of my recollection, Gergiev mentioned 8,000,000 views at the time of War and Peace—an especially impressive figure given that little if any of the material is subtitled in any language (not to mention that the credits often appear only in the Cyrillic alphabet, which most Westerners never learn). What surely drives the numbers is the Mariinsky brand—and the fact that everything’s free. “These are hard times for people,” Gergiev said when I suggested that he might set up an electronic tip jar. “We want to be generous.”
O.K., but suppose viewers would like to be generous, too. According to figures cited by Peter Gelb, general director of the Metropolitan Opera, the free nightly streams the company has been offering since mid-March have racked up 12 million views, growing the Met’s database by 150,000 new names—and 30,000 new donors.
The Mariinsky largesse endures even as Gergiev tiptoes back into live action. He called near midnight (his time) on July 7, keyed up from the evening’s concert reading of that luminous Zen fable Iolantha, Tchaikovsky’s last opera. It had streamed live and was already available on demand.
“Do you know how many people have watched us on Mariinsky TV?” he asked in throaty tones of ursine wonder. “Ninety-eight million.”
And still no electronic tip jar!? Even at one ruble per view, the Mariinsky would be looking at a pandemic windfall of 1.4 million desperately needed dollars. And at an average of just one U.S. dollar per average view, we’d be talking some real money. —Matthew Gurewitsch