This is a lovely city, no doubt about it. Even with a cosmic battle underway between warm sunshine and torrential ‘showers’, the wide avenues and elegant facades of St Petersburg’s streets are a pleasure to wander.
As the long, bustling Nevskiy Prospekt terminates in a sea of tram cables and chaotic modernity, at Ploschad Aleksandra Nevskogo, you are brought up to the gates of the Aleksandra Nevskiy Monastery and its linked cemeteries. One of those contains the Russian artistic ‘greats’ that associated themselves with this, most western of Russia’s cities in both geography and ideology. In a grove dedicated to composers, there lies Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. Reigning benignly from the corner, the suitably grand and ornate momument stands to that greatest of St Petersburg’s musical sons, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
If that’s where Tchaikovsky is physically laid to rest, then back down Nevskiy Prospekt, at the Mikhailovsky Theatre (formerly known as the Mussorgsky Theatre), Tchaikovsky was buried reputationally. In a summer repertoire no doubt pitched fairly and squarely at us tourists, the Jacobson Ballet were performing Swan Lake, more or less.
Now granted, this was not the Mariinsky and nor did we expect it to be, but in a theatre situated on the ‘Arts Square’, and linked to the Conservatory and the Philharmonic Hall, we did hope for something a little more… well, more ‘solid’ than we got. After all, the Jacobson has an alternative name of the ‘Russian State Ballet Theatre‘.
The hall itself is interesting. A small, high auditorium has four levels, of which we had taken two tickets dead front-centre of the top-most. There were just three rows, and as the balcony curved into the horseshoe, even on the highest level there were shallow boxes. The dominant colour scheme was tangerine, white and gold. This gave it less of an opulent look, than a washed-out and very slightly scruffy look. It was a good space, though, and we had high hopes.
The orchestra were small in number, but made up for it by going full-pelt for most of the time. In the wooden pit, therefore, the high woodwinds frequently took on a shrill tone and the drums were absurdly over-done, so that at times it sounded like someone was rhythmically dismantling the theatre. Of lush string-tone, there was little. It was a shame, because the playing had its charms, and some of the more sensitive passages came over well, with the big climaxes becoming little more than a drum-and-brass blast. Which is fine, if that’s what one likes, and hey, I suppose Tchaikovsky can bounce back from the occasional bit of crudity.
Because of the faff for security (full body scanners, and bag searches that put Covent Garden to shame) and the resulting rush for our seats we didn’t get a programme, so I have to apologise that I can’t put the heroes on their pedestals or cast the villains into the fiery pits. Anyway, perhaps it’s for the best, since had I had the names, there would have been little danger of disturbing pedestal-makers from their daily routine.
I’m not a dance aficionado, so I will tread carefully on my thoughts on the dancing. The corps de ballet struck me as less-than-0verwhelming. Frequently out of sync (this seems always to be my impression of ballet: am I expecting too much?), they rarely presenting a harmonious stage picture, although in the second act scene where Siegfried meets Odette, the swan company were more impressive than the six dancers selected to ‘stand out’ from the crowd. Amongst them, there was some very off timing and positioning.
The jester stood out as at least having some character and Siegfried and Odette displayed some grace, and he looked very forthcoming in his tights. The setting was traditional and stage machinery was evidently rudimentary, judging by the rather clunky way in which things ‘flew’. The lake scene had atmospheric trees and a nice backcloth showing a lake by twilight, but I was distinctly reminded of the remark made by the great Dame Hilda Bracket about a pretty backcloth being no good if you’ve nothing to put in front of it…
So far, then, we have a coarse orchestra and some reasonable but unrefined dancing in a very traditional staging. This is all, really, as one might expect from a second-order company providing performances of the ‘greats’ for a tourist-dollar audience. However, what really makes the headline of this blogpost apply to this performance was the utterly appalling behaviour of its audience. And those around us were Russian, predominantly. Where we sat were a couple of families and remainder of Russian couples and groups. As we queued to get in, there were notably more American accents to be heard. So, probably, we were not in the main ‘tourist block’ of the auditorium. That said, we paid 1000R (about £22) for our seats, and the pricing scheme rose to around 2500R (about £55), so it was not a particularly ‘cheap ticket’, especially taking into account the preceding remarks. Anyway, I have never in my life been part of such an indisciplined audience. Talking was incessant, so that there was scarcely a moment when a whisper or voice could not be heard from around us. Some of this was commentary, some was joke-cracking (which was almost understandable at moments…), and some was parents explaining the plot to children. Then there was the photo-taking, including the ceiling of the auditorium being lit up by people reviewing their images on their cameras’ LCDs; the red glow of the people behind taking a picture with a camera that needed the AF-assist lamp; the electronic ‘click’ sound of the picture being taken; the velcro on bags as cameras where removed and returned; and, yes, the intermittent full flash of someone who didn’t know how to turn off the flash. At one point, the usherette made a beeline for someone on our level (but in a box), who had taken a photo (and then thoughtfully shared it with her friends on the LCD screen). I wondered why she bothered, she was no more or less than a King Cnut trying to hold back a storm-surge tide of ill-mannered, disrespectful, peasant behaviour. These were Russians, in the city of Tchaikovsky’s residence and death, watching one of the great works that he produced in a medium (classical ballet) on which Russia can reasonably assert the greatest claim to having developed to its present form. I don’t expect a reverential air, but I certainly don’t expect them to piss all over it. It makes one wonder what the Mariinsky audiences must be like.
As I said, Tchaikovsky was buried in St Petersburg…
That slight rant aside, this has been a great trip thus far. You initiate a small round of applause when someone in a shop smiles at you, but I’ve come to appreciate that there is an attentiveness to some of the service that you receive, which it would be easy to overlook for want of that smile. It’s easy to assume that the ‘Leningrad’ days are long-gone, but we are only talking 20 years, so the public persona of Russia’s residents can’t reasonably be expected to be as free, easy and open as that of those of us who have enjoyed western Europe’s freedoms from birth. And, frankly, Londoners have no such powerful excuse for the abysmal service we frequently deliver.
Although, we still know (most of us) how to behave at a performance of opera, ballet or otherwise ‘serious’ or complex music.