St. Petersburg Performing Arts
St. Petersburg may have one of the world's great museums, but it's not known for its contemporary art scene. Art is generally judged according to whether it fits in with the city's venerable artistic traditions, which can be stifling for younger artists. The temptation to preserve the historical center in its original state is so strong that contemporary sculpture is largely absent from the streets
of St. Petersburg, and the installation of every new monument, especially in the City Center, provokes a massive debate. Even so, the contemporary art scene is growing, with galleries showcasing the work of a range of artists in many styles.
With so much 18th-century heritage in evidence, St. Petersburg makes the perfect setting to enjoy Russia's formidable musical tradition. The spiritual presence of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich is strong here—they all studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic publishes its schedule well in advance, but programming at other venues is often not determined until shortly before performances—websites for concert halls and theaters usually don't include info on events more than a month or two out. Only a few venues offer online ticket sales; among them are the Philharmonic (www.philharmonia.spb.ru) and the Mariinsky (www.mariinsky.ru). You can find information on musical events around town at www.classicalmusic.spb.ru.
During the high tourist season, Swan Lake, a signature production for the Russian classical ballet, appears by the dozen each day on various stages. If purity is important to you, go to either the Mariinsky or Mussorgsky theaters, and beware of the clones: not all stages are fit for such a grand ballet and there's a high risk of being served a brutally cut version, with difficult bits omitted, a few swans missing, and even no live orchestra.
Russian opera is much less known than Russian dance, and much less appreciated abroad. Many potential spectators are frightened merely by the sound of them. St. Petersburg opera singers, who’ve long complained that Russian operas aren’t performed in the West, are convinced that Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades is the greatest-ever dramatic opera and eager to make you change your mind. The Mariinsky's artistic director, Valery Gergiev, has declared it the company's policy to perform the obscure masterpieces of Russia's operatic legacy. Opera in Russia is about power, drama, depth, and philosophy. There's always a peasant riot, a doomed tsar, much chaos and insanity, and a lack of tuneful heroines. Among the works most likely to convert you are the philosophical and spiritual renditions of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh or Glinka's A Life for the Tsar.
St. Petersburg has some excellent drama theaters; performances are almost exclusively in Russian. But don't except lots of new works: instead, you'll have a choice of multiple productions of such classics as Antigone, Gogol's Marriage, and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, among others.
There are a number of ways to get the most from St. Petersburg's theater scene if you don't speak Russian. First, stick to English-language authors whose plays you already know. Plays by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams are popular and appear at many of the city's theaters. Then there are Russian classics well-known outside Russia, usually by Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Tolstoy. The Maly Drama Theater specializes in hosting foreign troupes and puts some effort into welcoming non-Russian-speaking audiences with English-language playbills and occasionally English subtitles projected above the stage.
Except for the most renowned theaters, tickets are easily available and inexpensive. You can buy them at the box offices of the theaters themselves, at teatralnaya kassa (theater kiosks) throughout the city, and at service bureaus in hotels, most of which post performance listings in their main lobby. The most useful website, www.theart.ru, features listings and e-ticketing for all St. Petersburg theaters, but is in Russian only. You can also purchase tickets online through the website www.kassir.ru; you can arrange for the tickets to be delivered, and if you want to avoid paying with your credit card, you can choose to pay in cash when you get your tickets.
The Mariinsky Theatre sells tickets online through its website (www.mariinsky.ru), at the theater itself, or at its own ticket office on the second floor of Gostiny Dvor, at the corner of Nevsky prospekt and ulitsa Dumskaya.
Note that many venues, including the Mariinsky Theatre, charge higher prices for foreigners than for Russians and that theater tickets purchased through hotels are the priciest of all, as most hotels tend to charge a markup on the foreigner price. All in all, your best option is to go in person to the theater concerned and buy the ticket there.
Most major theaters close down between mid-July and early August and start up again in mid-September or early October. However, summer is also the time for touring companies from other regions in Russia to come to town, so it's a rare day that there are no shows on at all. Sumptuous balls are thrown in the most famous palaces and concert halls in winter.
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