Valery Gergiev: electrifying and Edinburgh-bound

In St Petersburg at this time of the year the fact that the sun barely sets during the legendary White Nights means that it’s hard to get some shuteye.

But the honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), charismatic conductor Valery Gergiev, director of the legendary Mariinsky Theatre, probably never sleeps anyway.

Maestro Gergiev combines running his vast opera, orchestra and ballet company with principal conducting duties at the London Symphony Orchestra and numerous other roles worldwide. He is a big presence, with a legendary work ethic.

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Last Friday, only an hour before the curtain went up on his ballsy new production of Boris Godunov, the opening performance of his Stars of the White Nights Festival, Gergiev was relaxed enough to speak at an EIF press conference with director Jonathan Mills, and to muse on subjects as diverse as televising opera, nationalism in Wales and resisting orchestral collaborations with rock stars.

But what Gergiev was keeping close to his chest was quite how close to the bone the modern dress production, directed by Brit Graham Vick, was going to be.

Godunov, based on Pushkin’s verse play, is the Macbeth-inspired tale of a 16th century Tsar who cannot live with his murder of the child heir that clears his path to power. It is a nihilistic and, in its original 1869 version, unusually masculine opera.

For the packed first night house a scene where the militia-style riot police, the OMON, in their distinctive blue camouflage, hold back angry crowds waving placards could not help but recall recent anti-Putin protests.

In Modest Mussorgsky’s acknowledged masterpiece, Tsar Boris is neither tragic nor an outright baddie, but a ruthless pragmatist who wears the crown uncomfortably from the outset.

But at the heart of the opera lie the themes of Godunov’s increasing distance from his people and the battle for the control of information, elegantly conveyed as a monk completing his chronicle on a silver laptop. Its risky contemporary setting and pertinent meditation on the costs of power, censorship and the brutality of succession in Russia’s bloody history hasn’t been lost on Russian audiences and the media.

Of course Russian politics are never simple: Gergiev has been associated with Putin and it would be simplistic to understand the production as an outright act of protest. But on Friday night when tenor Andrei Popov, dressed as a Christ-like figure in a superman t-shirt, sang the Simpleton’s Lament, “Flow, flow bitter tears,” the historical frisson was palpable.

This summer in Edinburgh the maestro will lead the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra for four performances of Cinderella choreographed by the Bolshoi Ballet’s former Director Alexei Ratmansky as well as leading the LSO in performances of the complete Szymanowski and Brahms symphonies.

Edinburgh crowds shouldn’t expect such troubling themes in Prokofiev’s romantic Cinderella, but with the masterful Gergiev in charge, they should certainly expect some electricity.

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