The king and I - Valery Gergiev interview

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Legendary conductor Valery Gergiev tells Sarah Urwin Jones why bringing the little-known opera Krol Roger to the global stage is a dream come true on several fronts

IN THE gilt and duck egg blue well of the auditorium at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg the lights are about to go down for the legendary opera house's latest premiere, Krol Roger, a little known work by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski that will headline the Edinburgh International Festival's Opera programme this year. The opera itself might have been given a contemporary stage makeover, but scanning the auditorium, this could be any first night in the Mariinsky's 150-year history – the scene, as the audience await the arrival of maestro Valery Gergiev, is like a re-enactment by some great opera chorus. Layers of balconies rise up, five high, teaming with bodies, hands hanging over the edge, voices chattering in myriad languages, tiny vignettes of human life playing out in every nook like some great Russian narrative painting in the city's famous Hermitage Museum.

The stalls boxes below are filled with American tourists off the cruise ships, packed 10 in a box where one might more realistically fit four. In the Gods, a man with binoculars surveys the scene, as terrifying blue-uniformed babushkas, like some relic of the Soviet era, direct audiences to their seats.

It's a far cry from the rather more demure tiers of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre where Krol (King) Roger will arrive next month. The Mariinsky last came to Edinburgh in 1995, when chief conductor and artistic director Gergiev gave blistering accounts of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh and Sadko. More recently, Gergiev turned London on to the delights of Prokofiev's operas, but can he revive the fortunes of the less well-known Szymanowski who, despite becoming more of a household name in recent years for his violin concerto (played by Nicola Benedetti when she won Young Musician Of The Year), is nonetheless somewhat unfamiliar on the Western opera stage. "We have just had a residency by 92-year-old composer Henri Dutilleux," says Gergiev, of the idiosyncratic peer of Boulez and Messiaen, who attended the conductor's three-month long Stars Of The White Nights Festival. "Compared with him, Szymanowski is a picnic."

Gergiev and Edinburgh Festival director Jonathan Mills had been discussing Szymanowski projects for eight years, and the deal was cemented when Mills managed to produce wild kangaroos for Gergiev on a trip to the Melbourne Festival. Aware that the Mariinsky's Krol Roger needed a Polish milieu, Mills tracked down two Polish language productions of the opera set in 14th-century Sicily. Both productions were by respected director Mariusz Trelinski – one very traditionally set, one a contemporary reworking. Trelinski suggested the latter. "It had to mean something for contemporary Poland, with its series of corrupt regimes, where the Church still casts a long shadow," says Mills.

Certainly this new Mariinsky production marks a game stab at the opera's rather ambiguous and deeply psychological drama. On stage, telling the tale of 14th-century Sicilian King Roger, whose court descends into Dionysian chaos at the arrival of a 'heretic' Shepherd, Trelinski's contemporary production sidesteps the overt interpretations placed on the opera in the recent past – which have conjured allegories on everything from repressed homosexuality (Szymanowski struggled morally if not socially with his sexuality) to nefarious cults and the student revolts of 1968 – although still weighs heavy with the ghosts of Poland's, and by extension Russia's, Communist past.

Outside Gergiev's door, ominous heavies in plain clothes stand guard, filtering friend from foe. This native Ossetian, who now considers St Petersburg his home crowd, is rugged, smart if characteristically unshaven, and deeply pressed for time.

"Globalisation?" demurs the hard-working conductor, who also brings his London Symphony Orchestra to Edinburgh for a complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies. "Ten years ago we went to open a new opera house in Shanghai and I read in The Financial Times that the Mariinsky were the first global orchestra because we covered all five continents.

"Interesting, but that was not the goal. We are not Coca Cola," he jokes. "We don't have to be present in 145 countries."

The Mariinsky, however, do share other similarities with Coca Cola. It's not just down to the effervescence and the long history. The Mariinsky are the ultimate aggressively expansive opera company. From the cramped corridors backstage piled high with battered tour cases stamped Berlin, New York, and London, to the fact that, from the singers amongst their 2,000-strong staff powerbase, they can cast the Ring three times simultaneously – "Four, if you force me!" says Gergiev. And there are no signs that the theatre will stop expanding. Over the canal, the theatre is currently building a second opera house, which will double the St Petersburg production output while maintaining simultaneous touring. It will also provide 21st-century facilities for contemporary productions, although one cannot help but hope that the Mariinsky will not lose all of its history in the drive towards modernisation.

Gergiev is proud of their ambition and of the fact that a record company executive told him 10 years ago that no recording company could keep up with the Mariinsky's output. His drive is deep-rooted, piqued by a need for recognition, perhaps, which was not always forthcoming. "When I was 25, there were certain opportunities I wanted which I was not given," he says. "There was a great orchestra, the Leningrad Philharmonic, and I was never invited to conduct it. I won the Herbert Von Karajan Conductors Competition in Berlin in 1976, I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, I was offered concerts all over the world. I thought, now they will invite me to the Leningrad Philharmonic podium. No! It was only when I became music director of the Mariinsky 10 years later."

Twenty years on, as the final strains of Szymanowski's intense Krol Roger fade into loud applause round the gilded auditorium of the Mariinsky, Gergiev can be rather more certain that he is a wanted man.

• Prokofiev: the series, Usher Hall, August 15 and 16, 8pm. Krol Roger, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-473 2000), August 25 and 27, 7.15pm