Fall Arts Preview: Gergiev Goes Global

Sitting behind the desk in his St. Petersburg office, Valery Gergiev is talking about travel again. "Ah, Air France," he says, brandishing the latest addition to his collection of frequent-flier cards. "They brought it yesterday, but I haven't had a chance to use it yet." Have no fear--he will. The 49-year-old director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, usually known by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov Opera and Ballet, is a man in perpetual motion. In the next month he is scheduled to conduct more than a dozen concerts from Budapest to Paris, from Munich to Los Angeles. Later in the season he'll turn up in New York, where he is principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, and in Rotterdam, where he's principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

It's a typically frenetic schedule for the 49-year-old maestro with the wild combover. In his 14 years as chief conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky, Gergiev has earned a reputation as a brilliant interpreter of Russian classical music--reintroducing long-neglected composers like Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov to American and European audiences. He's also developed into a cultural impresario without peer in his home country. Even before Russians were convinced of the viability of opening to the West, Gergiev was wooing everyone from Prince Charles to record-industry magnates to American billionaire opera fans--the very people who could keep his theater afloat. His hard work generated valuable buzz, lucrative sponsorship, and, in particular, crucial touring and recording deals for the Kirov that enabled the musicians to earn respectable livings, even as other performers fled the country en masse. As a result, the Kirov has eclipsed Moscow's now-crumbling Bolshoi as Russia's most venerated theater.

The problem is that the Mariinsky has now outgrown its 19th-century digs. To solve the space crunch, Gergiev has backed a controversial redesign and expansion plan by avant-garde California architect Eric Owen Moss. The resulting debate over the theater's future--which has even reached the Kremlin, where President Vladimir Putin has thrown his weight behind Gergiev--raises a question of larger significance: how much modernity is the country prepared to swallow after 15 years of tumultuous and sometimes destructive attempts at reform?

Initial evidence suggests not much. The Moss plans, unveiled last Febru--ary, set off a firestorm in this city of magnificent 18th- and 19th-century buildings that have seen few dramatic changes since World War II. One critic has likened the Mariinsky annex to "garbage bags"--a label that immediately stuck. Another journalist denounced the plans as "a crime against the heritage [of the St. Petersburg cityscape] that has miraculously survived against all the odds," and compared the extension to a "snotlike snail crawling over a drab rectangular box."

The split reveals much about contemporary St. Petersburg. Because of their city's historic role as a window to Europe, as well as its physical proximity to the West, Petersburgers have a reputation for being cosmopolitan. At the same time, many of Putin's St. Petersburg confederates--some of whom happen to hail, like him, from the Soviet-era KGB--also seem to share his apparently skeptical attitude toward the role of democratic institutions in post-communist Russia. Among those skeptics, interestingly, is Gergiev, who agrees with Putin that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a disaster, "one of the most painful and lethal and tragic things to have happened."

The conductor, however, is determined to move ahead with his plans for the Mariinsky. He's never made any secret of his belief that matters of taste have little in common with democratic procedures. "I would love a discussion," says Gergiev. "But I wouldn't want everyone to have a voice." He has compelling reasons to want change. The theater, barely altered since it was completed in 1860, has long been in desperate need of extra space for the moving and storage of stage decorations and equipment. The inadequacies have only been highlighted since the ascendancy of Gergiev, who is an enthusiastic connoisseur of the technical possibilities of modern musical stage productions. (He can go on for hours about the sophisticated stage-changing equipment at Covent Garden, and he raves about Julie Taymor and her Broadway production of "The Lion King.")

This heady desire to embrace the new comes through in Gergiev's fast-paced conducting style. Baritone Sergei Leiferkus says the maestro embodies contemporary Russia: a whirling, chaotic, unsteady stream of energy. The Cuban-born arts patron Alberto Vilar, who has donated more than $10 million to Gergiev's productions over the years, sums him up as a "super-high-ventilating conductor who sweats profusely." Onstage, unfortunately, his exuberance can translate into jerky hand motions that cause confusion among musicians and lead to near train wrecks during performances. (Last fall, some of this displeasure leaked out in the New York papers and in the tell-all book "Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera," written by its former press representative.)

This season promises to be as interesting as ever. On the architectural front, the battle will heat up as a group of St. Petersburg designers gets set to reveal its own plans for the Mariinsky. Artistically, as well, this will be a time of new challenges. In New York, Gergiev will step in for James Levine, who is beginning his transition to the podium of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to conduct Wagner's "Parsifal." Next month the Kirov season opens with the opera "Boris Godunov," preceded by a screening of the Harrison Ford action flick "K-19: The Widowmaker" (additional testimony to Gergiev's eclectic style--and occasional failures of judgment). What surprises lie ahead? We'll see when the curtain rises on the next act of Valery Gergiev's personal epic.