ON 1 May as he tried to secure his baggage about him
while being propelled off the plane in St. Petersburg
by a stout babushka, Veniamin Vasilievich was
pleased to note that his left ear had stopped bleeding.
dug a finger in to be sure, and, retrieving nothing but
dry red flakes of paprika, felt very much relieved indeed.
The irritation in the ear of Veniamin Vasilievich traveled
upward into his eyes as he emerged into the smoke-filled
arrival hall of the St. Petersburg airport. At the bar - for there
was one - all manner of passengers drank vodka from plastic
cups and smoked cigarettes and the occasional cigar, ashing
into the cups when they became empty. Stumbling over valises,
Veniamin Vasilievich made his way through the thick haze to
the escalator, descended, and was deposited into the back of
a crowd, remaining there for an interminable period to see
the Department of Passport Control. He could not determine
which line progressed to which booth, or if any of the lines
led anywhere at all, and so, hesitant to commit, Veniamin
Vasilievich seemed always to remain au fond, until, without
detection of progress, he found himself suddenly at the front,
speaking to the official in the Department of Passport Control:
a man short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, with a bald
forehead and wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind
known as sanguine
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"State your name," said the official, peering over
"Veniamin Vasilievich," replied Veniamin Vasilievich.
"Why have you come to St. Petersburg?" the official inquired.
"I have come to see the opening of Mariinsky II, the new
two-thousand seat, twenty-two-billion-ruble state-of-theart
opera house that marks a new era for St. Petersburg's
legendary Mariinsky Theatre," recited Veniamin Vasilievich.
The official took notes with a short pencil, nodding
vigorously in approval.
"The opening of the new opera house further marks
the completion of the Mariinsky cultural complex in St.
Petersburg's historic Theatre Square," Veniamin Vasilievich
continued, "and provides the legendary Russian organization
with even greater artistic possibilities." Veniamin
"You are not a journalist?" said the official, picking his nose.
"No," lied Veniamin Vasilievich, feeling parched and dizzy.
The official stamped the passport with a grand flourish
in the Russian tradition, and pointed to the exit.
Leaving the Department of Passport Control, Veniamin
Vasilievich paced aimlessly and anxiously at the airport
entrance, un roi sans divertissement, looking for familiar
faces until a man in a black suit with a black visor cap
"I am he," replied Veniamin Vasilievich.
"We wait for you, but you do not come," said the driver,
for so he was. "You must now travel with Europeans. They
come three o'clock. You wait." The driver escorted him into the bright sun, and then into a dark van, wherein Veniamin
Vasilievich gathered his luggage underneath him and, fatigue
from his flight smothering him like a woolen overcoat, went
at once to sleep without dreaming, waking only briefly to
espy the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad
float past the window, guns at the ready, flag raised.
Many hours later, Veniamin Vasilievich found himself
seated with Italian, German, Japanese, British, Spanish,
French, American and Russian journalists in a Georgian
restaurant of high regard, his plate attended to and refilled
by waitresses who communicated with the kitchen staff and
one another through security headsets. The charismatic yet
halting buzz of English as a second language darted around
his ears ("We are coming here - since five years." "While
roads is breaking, the government are playing with us like
privates!"). Excellent breads, cheeses, vegetables, meat and
fish continued to arrive until Veniamin Vasilievich felt he
must leave immediately - before dessert and coffee - or
remain forever. He awkwardly excused himself, stumbling
out the door onto the streets of St. Petersburg.
The light was failing but there were few shadows as the
buildings were short and there were no trees. Keeping the
water on his right, Veniamin Vasilievich pulled the collar
of his overcoat close, for the evening chill had arrived, and
made his way excitedly toward the site of the new opera
house, stopping in the middle of the street to consult his
map several times en route. Turning a bend, Veniamin Vasilievich found the Mariinsky II suddenly in front of
him, unassuming in stone and glass: boxy, yet pastorally
bridged over the Kryukov Canal to the original, more
ornate Mariinsky, now Mariinsky I. (He knew that just
beyond, out of sight, lay the Mariinsky III, a small, fine
wooden ship of a concert hall with its wooden panel constructions.
Built before Mariinsky II, it was now relegated
to third in the matryoshka order.) Veniamin Vasilievich
squinted and peered into the windows of Mariinsky II,
but the house had not yet officially opened, and there was
neither light nor a clue as to what awaited in its interior.
He shrugged, turned, and walked along the Kryukov back
to the hotel.
It must be known that Maestro Valery Abisalovich
Gergiev, the great conductor and Artistic and General
Director of the Mariinsky, expresses himself chiefly by
relating whatever weighs on his mind au moment: projects,
repertoire, performances, recordings, the importance
of serving youth, the greatness of Russia - all in one
continuous theme, shining an unpredictable spotlight on
haphazard details. If a question is posed, Maestro has a
habit of never answering directly - or if he does, of leaning
forward, brow furrowed, hand placed tragically on the
forehead rubbing the temples, and rumbling pleasantly
directly into his free hand in a soothing manner.
Sitting at the top of a set of stairs in Mariinsky II and
clutching a small complimentary bottle of fizzy water,
Veniamin Vasilievich was glad that Maestro had been
given a microphone to amplify his murmurs but was
vaguely anxious that he had also been given the floor
without fear of interruptions or follow-up questions. But
then Maestro began to speak, and Veniamin Vasilievich
scribbled madly in his notebook, all the while trying to
piece the parts together into a greater whole.
"...Up to seven, eight performances a day," said Maestro,
speaking to the conceivable workload of the three
"Surely this is madness," thought Veniamin Vasilievich,
his brain dizzy at the arithmetic and audience-building
that would be required.
"People tell me students are our biggest audience now,"
Maestro continued. "For those who are now five, seven
years old, a huge opportunity to experience for the first
time in their lives the miracle of classical music."
"There could be no argument there," Veniamin
Vasilievich considered. "Bravo, Maestro."
"Domingo came in ninety-two, February," said Maestro,
"to Russia. The country was two months old.... The
record label is my own answer to what I think recording
industry should do today. Don't kill project if you think
it's going to lose five dollars - but it is the best project....
I know Shostakovich Five is a better-known symphony
than Twelve. But Twelve is a good symphony. Fourteen is
a good Symphony."
Veniamin Vasilievich shifted his weight. Now Maestro
was recounting the 2003 fire in the Mariinsky Theatre's warehouse. "...There were two and a half walls left. It felt
like Stalingrad. It was so painful. But I started to think,
instead of warehouse, opera house."
"Here is a fine slogan," thought Veniamin Vasilievich.
"I called Toyota...." Maestro continued. "I much prefer
to play with a known than with a totally unknown. I find it
a big risk, maybe too big a risk for me...."
"A-ha," thought Veniamin Vasilievich. "Here is Mariinsky
III. We are getting close."
"I was saying 'yes' to everything," said Maestro, his eyes
drifting to the window and the cloudless skies beyond it.
" 'Can we go up?' 'Yes.' 'Can we go another ten meters?' 'Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes.' Moved from two thousand, fifteen hundred,
twelve hundred seats. So it can be grand.... Always with
the family focus."
"Still Mariinsky III. And yes I said yes I will Yes," thought
Veniamin Vasilievich, smiling.
"The Russian tsars were very quick." Maestro was building
to a close. "And by the way, they were very smart. They
built culture like Medicis. I am very grateful to Alexander
the Second.... Russia is seen as a country that thinks, but
maybe not deep enough. I want to say that every country
makes mistakes. But fortunately every country makes
good things, thanks God, Russia included."
Guards sprinted through the opera house foyer with
semiautomatic weapons and German Shepherds. Their
camouflage pants were ineffective against the Iranian onyx
with LED-back-lighting that covered the walls. "Listen
to me, Veniamin Vasilievich," said a diminutive Russian
journalist tugging at the elbow of Veniamin Vasilievich,
who had started with alarm at the animals' passing. "You
cannot be too careful about security in Russia."
Swarovski hung from the ceiling above, light fairly
glinting off the guards as they tromped their way out. In
the hall itself, more Swarovski dripped from the top of the
Tsar's Box (its actual title - old traditions are not so easily
discarded), which cut mercilessly through two rings of the
upper level. "You cannot tell, Veniamin Vasilievich," the tour
guide and likely former KGB man told him, "but crystal is
actually supported by heavy cable. Do you see?" Veniamin
Vasilievich squinted at the wires above the crystals. "One
thousand kilograms they can take. Strong like bear."
Two Asian men, scissors and box cutters moving at
great speeds, were installing a long, thin strip of carpet at
a break in the orchestra section. As a replica of the original
Mariinsky curtain lowered, Veniamin Vasilievich caught
sight of a painter at work backstage, turning a once gleaming
white panel black.
At a barked command from an offstage chinovnik, the
crowd stood as a single animal. Veniamin Vasilievich
stood as well, thinking that the national anthem was forthcoming.
Instead, it was Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
"I should have foreseen this," thought Veniamin
Vasilievich, remembering yesterday's newspaper article
wherein the President had awarded Maestro the recently
revived Stalin-era Hero of Labor medal; recalling the running
of the German Shepherds from that morning; noting
the official seal on the diminutive podium; and only now
noticing in his periphery the goons who lined the walls
of the hall, some still wearing their ineffective camouflage,
looking everywhere but onstage.
The President, for so he was, stood no taller than five
and a half feet and assumed the podium with legs apart and his center of gravity between them, as though he
had just dismounted from his steed. He delivered a short
speech of firm support, praising the Mariinsky as a flagship
of Russian culture while noting that Russia now demanded
cultural amelioration beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The President then strode deliberately down the steps of
the stage and into the orchestra section, offering not even a
cursory glance toward the Tsar's Box but instead endeavoring
to sit among the people. He shook hands, embraced
women (and would have kissed babies had there been any
present) and made his way along the self-same strip of
carpet the workers had laid hours earlier to take his seat.
For Veniamin Vasilievich, the two and half hours of
the opening-night gala performance - presented sans
entracte - swam by delightfully. He nodded approvingly
at the acoustics and the sightlines and was beguiled by the
shifting stage - maximized to great effect to introduce one
dance or aria even as another rolled to its exit. He marveled
at the bold and unapologetic Russianness of Maestro
Valery Abisalovich Gergiev's program, which opened with
Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev's "The Montagues and the
Capulets" and drove through Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky's
Rite of Spring (with choreography by both Vaslav Nijinsky
and Sasha Waltz), then on to George Balanchine's Jewels
and ballerina Diana Vishneva dancing Alberto Alanso's
choreography to Carmen's "Habanera." He tittered at
pianist Denis Leonidovich Matsuev's channeling of Chico
Marx in Grigory Romanovich Ginzburg's Figaro Fantasia
from Rossini's Il baribere di Siviglia.
"How did that Steinway get onstage?" wondered the
French Canadian seated next to him. Veniamin Vasilievich
could only shrug happily.
This is to say nothing of the blazing fiddles of Yuri
Abromovich Bashmet and Leonidas Kavakos, of living
legend Plácido Domingo, who reminded the ladies in their furs and the men in their smokings that he remained
a tenor, offering Siegmund's "WinterstuÌˆrme." To say
nothing of the sensuous Anna Yuryevna Netrebko, who
tried on Verdi's Lady Macbeth, gave a taste of Pyotr
Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and participated in a gleefully
cartoonish arms race of a "Là ci darem la mano"
from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni that
had Veniamin Vasilievich laughing as he had at simpler
jokes as a younger man. When he thought there could
be no more, there appeared the great Olga Vladimirovna
Borodina gently serenading him with "Mon Coeur s'ouvre
à ta voix" from Saint-SaÃ«ns's Samson et Dalila. It was the
end of a night to remember for Veniamin Vasilievich, and
for Maestro, the beginning of one - as it was said that he
(and many others) celebrated his sixtieth birthday (for so
it was) with piles of caviar and bottles of vodka until five
that morning, with Maestro returning to Mariinsky II only
moderately late and charmingly disheveled to conduct the
(scheduled) one-thirty curtain of Iolanta the next afternoon.
The 4 May program of dance at Mariinsky II found
Veniamin Vasilievich stage left in the Dress Circle
with a fine view of both the dancers and the Tsar's Box,
wherein he could observe the great Maya Mikhaylovna
Plisetskaya, who had been named prima ballerina assoluta
at the Bolshoi some fifty years ago, and who presently
perched with excellent posture and a look of vague interest
at the goings-on beneath her.
Onstage, members of the Mariinsky Ballet performed
Balanchine's choreography for Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky's
Symphony in C. Veniamin Vasilievich found the
dancers' fluidity matched by Maestro Gianandrea Noseda's gliding gait in the pit, but this was all a prelude to Bolero.
Maurice Béjart's choreography of Maurice Ravel's
Bolero - a haunting diary of a madman, an obsessive ritual,
a steadfast, unchanging, unrelenting melody of three
hundred forty bars around which the orchestra grows and
swells - assigns a female dancer (and in a later production,
a male one) the role of melody, puts her on a pedestal, and
assigns a wolf pack of men below her to the role of rhythm.
The solo role was once danced by Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya,
whom it must be assumed taught it, in that great
lineage of Russian instruction, to the presently pedestaled
soloist below, Diana Vishneva.
Veniamin Vasilievich had seen Maya Mikhaylovna
Plisetskaya's Bolero on film (made in a time when such
things were still filmed and elegantly produced) and so
with this celluloid vision in his mind's eye - a passionate,
affirming and hypnotic performance by the former prima
ballerina assoluta - he was unmoved by the rote rhythmic
gymnastics that unfolded below like so many exercises from
a fitness trainer. Diana Vishneva, it seemed to him, demonstrated
technique without character, a series of movements
that served no larger arc.
Even so, the combined chemistry of the men of the
Béjart Ballet Lausanne and the Mariinsky Ballet generated
enough energy and support to build electricity in the hall,
so that when the finale came, sustained applause came with
it. Diana Vishneva bowed and bowed and bowed again to
the ecstatic crowd in the set-piece manner of ballerinas.
She then directed her gaze (for once, noted Veniamin
Vasilievich) skyward to the Tsar's Box in order that she
might acknowledge Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya, who
herself stood and bowed in the set-piece manner of ballerinas.
Diana Vishneva returned the bow. Maya Mikhaylovna
Plisetskaya returned her bow. Diana Vishneva returned the
bow again. The crowd was thrilled and increased its fervor.
Yet what had begun as deferential well-wishing was slowly
taking on an air of brinkmanship. Maya Mikhaylovna
Plisetskaya bowed yet again. Diana Vishneva followed suit.
This continued another three minutes, now five. "I must
get a picture!" bursted the woman sitting next to Veniamin
Vasilievich, fumbling for her camera. The set pieces were
becoming more elaborate. Onstage, they became feats of
flexibility. In the Tsar's Box, they were now direct appeals to
the patrons with a sense of vogue la galÃ¨re. Ten minutes of
genuflection. Was fifteen possible?
"This is madness, surely," thought Veniamin Vasilievich,
who turned and found the door. He shut it behind him but
could not shut out the frenzy of the crowd.
On 5 May, his final evening in St. Petersburg, Veniamin
Vasilievich was himself seated in the depths of the Tsar's Box, but at the elegant elder statesman
Mariinsky I, for a tragically comic or comically tragic
Nabucco - he could not be certain which but found
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi underserved in
either case. Was the cartoonish comedy intentional or a
byproduct of the troglodyte sets and Cecil Blount DeMille
costuming? The soprano Maria Agasovna Guleghina
occasionally screeched her high notes as Abigaille. At
one point, Veniamin Vasilievich noted that singers were
spinning what appeared to be pipes. Hand-slapping
occurred at random, choreography apropos of nothing.
"Well, I'm off," a bewildered American critic said to him
as the celebrated Mariinsky curtain dropped for intermission.
"Is there a bus?" he asked, and, not waiting for
an answer, disappeared.
"The problem," reasoned Veniamin Vasilievich to himself,
"is that the company are tourists in Dmitry Alexandrovitch
Bertman's production, and perhaps in Giuseppe
Fortunino Francesco Verdi's opera, too. No one seems
even moderately committed to the story! Even Plácido
Domingo's Nabucco, who has added one fine aria, feels
uncertain - his enterprises, like Hamlet's, losing the name
To accompany the smoked fish, many bottles of vodka
(Russian Standard, of course) were drunk among the
journalists at the table of Veniamin Vasilievich during
the farewell dinner. Veniamin Vasilievich's sense of
geography, tenuous even in ideal conditions, had abandoned
him entirely now. But his sense of time remained,
and he remembered that 5 May was Russian Orthodox
So in honor of the holiday, after the bottles were emptied,
Veniamin Vasilievich and others played tourist and
made their way in a procession to one of St. Petersburg's
many historic churches. "It is cold - come inside, Veniamin
Vasilievich!" beckoned the German.
Veniamin Vasilievich felt guilty walking into church on
Easter Sunday tipsy, but the warmth of the incense calmed
him. Believers bowed gently back and forth, hands across
their chests, as they awaited communion from the deacons,
who performed the mysteries of the church in sight of the
parishioners with the familiarity of making pastry in a
kitchen. A small choir wafted away any residue of Nabucco
with the pure, clean lines - grounded by deep bass - of
Veniamin Vasilievich made his way upstairs to a
beautiful room with vaulted ceilings of rich wood and
gold leaf - and stood at the back. In front of him, the
faithful bowed and ritually echoed a cantor's chant.
Veniamin Vasilievich sank into his overcoat as God's
love surrounded him.