Valery Gergiev - Kirov Opera - Boris Godunov - Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky - BBC Proms
Sofia Gubaidulina - Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ According to St. John - BBC Proms
Royal Albert Hall


“I’m Mad About the Boy” and the boy I am talking of is the supreme chief of the Kirov the conductor Valery Gergiev. So far this year I have seen him on four occasions and in five different programs. He has put on a bit of weight and has very little hair left now in which to carry out his gimmick of pushing his hair back. He drips with sweat and he has a half-shaven, or maybe it’s a ‘designer’ shaven look of stubble on his face. I have the perfect gift in mind for him: a good razor or good hairspray to fix his out of control locks! He is like God; he is everywhere. And when he is in London, I am there! He not only runs the whole Mariinsky Theatre (except for the help he receives from his sister, Larissa, who is in charge of the Kirov’s Young Singers’ Academy). But he also has the honour of being a personal friend of President Putin and the very rich American (Cuban) Alberto Vilar that is sponsoring the St. Petersburg Festival – Stars of the White Nights, May-June 2002. Anybody who is anybody will be there (as it is the 300th Celebration St. Petersburg) from the world of opera, classical music and ballet. Gergiev broke the chain of touring with the Bolshoi who made record deals with the West and it is now the Kirov which reign’s supreme. The joke in Russia is: “the last place you ever went to see the Kirov was St. Petersburg, because the company was always off tour, earning the Western cash it couldn’t raise at home.”

Gergiev is also Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, a principal guest conductor of the New York Met and is among the three or four leading conductors in the world at age 49. He is committed to the Kirov for 250 days a year; the rest of his time is for foreign dates that earn him serious money. I don’t know where he finds the energy to conduct as he did in London – three concerts in 24 hours. Seeing him on stage at the RAH for the Proms with hundreds of Russians playing and singing, all with huge families at home dependent on him, he must feel completely responsible for them all economically (food, as it was, in the mouth for thousands of Russians). But I am here for the music and to see his charisma and charm in the art of conducting. He was dressed in Ermenegildo Zegna Italian clothes, darlings.

Born in 1953, Gergiev was brought up in the Caucasus studies in Moscow with the legendary conductor-teacher Ilya Musin. In 1978 he became the Kirov Junior Conductor. In 1988 he became the Artistic Director of the Kirov Opera and after three years he was in charge of the Kirov Ballet ( . So, in May 2002 when Kirov came to Covent Garden it was the start of the celebration of the city of St. Petersburg that was founded on 27 May 1703. Next year will be its 300-year anniversary! ( Appropriately, he came with 300 artists from the Mariinsky Theatre, Kirov Ballet and Opera companies ( (email: On 31 December 2002 they will celebrate with a spectacular Gala Concert and Russian Ball and will celebrate HIM at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Tsar Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg; his new Imperial capital was Russia’s “window on the West”. Peter was the first to make the Russians face West; in their minds they think Eurasia. It was Peter who forced the Russians to shave their beards, dress like Westerners and imitate the manners of Europeans. Peter (born in 1672) was certainly Great – 6ft 7in in height and full of energy. He controlled all of his empire, oversaw the building for St. Petersburg, organised an army and a fleet, reformed the government, suppressed rebellions and fought several wars against the Swedes, which extended Russia to the Baltic Sea. His father, the Tsar Alexis, was aware of Russia endeavouring to catch up with the West. In 1700 Peter introduced his calendar reforms. He travelled to Europe to get ideas and he worked as a shipbuilder in Holland. In his travels he picked up what he needed for his modern state.

I could go back to Brazil after more that 35 years in Europe with all my experience and try, like Peter, to reform them. In my first state law against corruption and crime the parasitic bureaucrats would kill me. In any case, I am interested only in the social services for the poor and homeless. I would like to construct council flats for the poor and get rid of all the favelas in Brazil; and also input a birth control program better than the one in Iran. But the powerful church would be totally against my program. My dream (“I have a dream”) is that Brazil would have no more homeless poverty-stricken people and above no more children on the streets. I cannot understand my Brazilian friends’ priorities – they never give anything back to society, even if they do talk of God and pray a lot!! Like Russia, in Brazil corruption is the order of the day. They consider me a foreigner anyway!!!

I love Peter the Great. The most intriguing aspect of his personality is that he travelled incognito as a commoner to Europe. His second wife was a peasant and he elevated other peasants to his court. “He sought the counsel of a Drunken Assembly appointed mock churchmen, and kept a retinue of jesters, dwarfs and fools. He loved his son Alexis, Peter also loved an Abyssinian called Abram Gannibal, whom he had purchased from the sultan in Istanbul and who rose to become a major-general, owner of a large estate, which passed down to Puskin, his great-grandson.” Peter could be equally tyrannical. The poet Max Voloshin called him “the First Bolshevik”. The site Peter chose for Sankt Pieter Burkh was still claimed by the Swedes and Russia was in the middle of a long war with them. His successors changed the name to St. Petersburg. But for the Russians it was always “Piter”. The common spirit of Peter’s city was, “loved it, hated it, lived in it and died for it.”

The Empresses’ Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great all left their mark on St. Petersburg during the time they reigned, shown in the baroque of the Winter Palace, the classical lines of the Marble Palace and the Tauride Palace. But for me the most important one is the Mariinsky Theatre started by the creation of “The Imperial Theatre” in 1766. Catherine the Great started the building project in 1783; the building opened it’s doors to the public with Paisiello’s opera Il Mondo della Luna.

For the Russian’s St. Petersburg is the centre of intellectual and cultural life along with the help of the poet Anna Akmatova and the composer Sergei Prokofiev. In literature Godol and Dostoevsky lived most of their adult lives in St. Petersburg. The great ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Vaclav Nijinsky both danced in the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. I know I am repeating myself as I have written about this city before but you must understand that I saw Kirov when they came to London with the program which will celebrate the city St. Petersburg next year. It was so wonderful that I feel that it I must talk about it again.

The concert that I saw was on 28 May 2002, it was an all Russian music program including A Life for the Tsar, Act IV by Mikhail Glinka, Cleopatra Act I, Domenico Cimarosa and ballet Raymonda of Glazunov Act III, Demon by Anton Rubinstein Act II. The second program, on 29 May 2002, was Spartacus Act III and Leningrad Symphony by Dmitry Shostakovich, the ballet was created by Igor Belsky in 1961. It was “inspired by the 900 days of hell during the Siege of Leningrad, full of heartfelt images and burning choreography. Youthful optimism, military brutality, death, suffering and grief. It’s all there in the brawny men and tender women of Belsky’s strapping ensemble.” It was an extraordinary – wonderful Gala nights. It gave me so much musical pleasure because it was new to me. (Incidentally the St. Petersburg Orchestra, formed in 1802, is 200 years old this year.)

On Saturday 24 August 2002, I was at the RAH – part of the Proms Festival. I had the great privilege of hearing a concert version of a four-part version of Boris Godunov. The libretto was Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (born Karevo in Pskov 21 March 1839, died St. Petersburg 28 March 1881). After a career in the army he became a civil servant. Mussorgsky was influenced by both folk music and literature and was self-taught in music. His best compositions include A Night on the Bare Mountain 1867, Pictures at an Exhibition 1896, and Boris Godunov 1870-74 (there is one version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1896). The Marriage (unfinished but performed in 1909) from Gogol’s comedy, Khovanshchina 1872-80 which was completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. – I saw about this opera with the Kirov production in 2000; you can read about it on

The score is full of evocative Russian folk songs and dances. Boris Godunov was based on Pushkin’s historical drama on the life of the Tsar Boris Teodorowicz Godunov, Tzar et Autocrator Totius Russiae, born 1598 and died 1605, and Karamzin’s History of the Russian State. This authentic 1869 version, which I saw in 4 parts and 7 scenes, is the Mariinsky Theatre edition. It was a concert performance sung in Russian with Kirov Opera, chorus of the Kirov Opera, and orchestra of the Kirov Opera. The entire Kirov Company was on tour this year, first in Italy, followed by the Edinburgh Festival, Salzburg Festival, etc. I read about the Boris Godunov opera in my programme, “On the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, his older son Fyodor ascended the throne. The strings were effectively pulled by the simple-minded Fyodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Godunov. During this time, Ivan’s second surviving son, the 7 year-old Tsarevich Dmitry, was found with his throat cut in the town of Uglich, to which Boris had exiled him. Rumour blamed Boris, whose path to the throne was cleared by the death of Fyodor in 1598 and the retirement of his wife Irina, Boris’ sister, to the Novodyevichy Monastery outside Moscow. This is where the action begins.” Then Boris has guilty hallucinations and dies at the end. Of course, darlings, this is a completely dramatic composer.

The bass Vladimir Ognovenko in the title role was dazzling. The finale is one of the most powerful in all operas. Boris last word was “Forgive me…” There are scenes of tremendous power and emotion, all of beauty and depth of feeling which Mussorgsky provided as well as his deeply-felt melodies. As the Promenaders told me, the performance of this opera is always a major event. Mussorgsky penetrated the very soul of Russia and her people, expressing it majestically, starkly, lyrically, humorously and with devastating emotion. “The part of the guilt-ridden Tsar who has murdered his way to the throne, is one of the supreme roles in all opera, a veritable Russian Macbeth. It is also one of the shortest great roles in opera but such is the composer’s genius, it still dominates it. The part requires a dark-voiced bass with the range of a baritone…It was the troubled periods of Russia’s history that always attracted him the most, for, as he said, it was at such times that the soul of the people was better revealed. ‘Whatever I do’, he wrote, ‘it is the Russian people whom I see pass before my eyes – grand, vast, majestic and magnificent’.” (taken from my Opera book)

Mussorgsky’s life as a minor official was financially ruined overnight by abolition of serfdom and his failure as a composer soured his character and he started drinking heavily. Even if the legend of his alcoholism was excessive his real problem was that the symptoms he displayed, which were due to epilepsy. He died alone and in poverty in a military hospital that admitted him by charity.

It was Sunday 25 August 2002, at 1PM at the Proms when my heart stood still. The composer Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931) whose music was being performed at the concert was actually sitting right behind me!!! For the full three hours of the concert, I could see her excited but anxious face as she listened to her masterpiece being performed. At the end, to my delight, she went on stage and kissed all the interpreters and the conductor, three kisses – darlings, to each. I am fascinated with her, as she is one of the few composers alive that still has devotees (along with Boulez, Birtwistle, Ligeti, and Henze). Her mother was Slavic and her Father a Tartar. She went to the Kazan Conservatory and moved to Moscow in 1954, completing her post-graduate studies with Sheliban. In the 1960s together with Edison Denisov and Alfred Schinttke, she came to the forefront of the Moscow avant-garde. To support herself she wrote music for the films and theatre. Then in 1975 she formed the group called Astreya that used mostly folk instruments. Most of her music is rooted in religious imagery, the music that connects with the transcendent. She was influenced by Eastern philosophies with a profound spirituality and explored a wide range of sonorities. She creates a sound vast and very much metallic – bell sounds. They were played in a way that I have never heard before and I loved it. With her own roots, with the solemnity of Russian Orthodox ceremony, with the drama of the Biblical Passion from the verses of the Gospel of St. John and the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation, with its Russian liturgical relentlessness and Messiaen like literalism all tied together, I can truly say that I loved it!!!! I thought that the magnificent bass Gennady Bezzubenkov’s singing at this concert was the most beautiful I have heard and the Chorus of Kirov Opera and complimented it perfectly. Gubaidulina said of herself, “ I am the place where East meets West.” The piece that I was listening to was her Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ According to St. John, which is written, in two parts for two separate occasions. The St. John Passion was commissioned for the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of J S Bach and was premiered September 2000. St. John Easter came two years later, a commission from North German Radio, first performed in Hamburg in March 2002. Gubaidulina knew when she wrote The Passion that The Easter had to follow. I think this creation could only come from a Russian Orthodox; as the “Best-Dressed Man” at the Proms put it “it sounds apocalyptic” and went after the first part he left for his picnic in Kensington Gardens.

Gergiev gave his last concert on the same sunny day, for hours later, with Prokofiev and Alexander Toradze as the great piano soloist and ending with Shostakovich. It was a spectacular marathon of Russian Music this weekend at the RAH. The audience was so immersed in the music that when Gergiev finished conducting it was two seconds before applause started. Then, of course, standing ovations.

Now I just need to go to the New Year’s Eve Ball to launch the tercentenary year in a unique style at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg with sexy eyebrows as my escort. (I need a fairy godmother to wave a wand because I too, like Cinderella, want to go to the ball!!).


Verinha Ottoni.


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