(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 10/15.)
1. Russia’s main imperial opera and ballet theater
Today, the honor of the best-known Russian theater probably belongs to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. However, long before it, by decree of Catherine the Great, the Imperial Theater of Russian Opera and Ballet was founded in St. Petersburg in 1783. Russia had theaters before Catherine, but it was she who created the Directorate of Imperial Theaters. The theater belonged to and was subordinate to the royal court and was funded from the royal purse. Its repertoire included Italian opera and chamber music, ballet and ballroom music, as well as French and Russian drama productions.
In 1802, the French choreographer Charles Didelot arrived in St. Petersburg and headed the ballet troupe of the imperial theaters. In 1847, the ballet troupe was joined by another French choreographer, Marius Petipa, who trained several generations of professional dancers in Russia and staged more than 40 ballets, turning Russian ballet into one of the world’s best.
2. At first, Mariinsky was the Bolshoi
The Bolshoi Kamenny (Big Stone) Theater in St. Petersburg that no longer exists
The history of the Mariinsky Theater began with the construction of the Bolshoi Kamenny (Big Stone) Theater in St. Petersburg in 1784. It was the first permanent theater in the Russian Empire and one of the largest theaters in Europe. Incidentally, its historical building was similar to the future building of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which was built in the 1820s. The future Mariinsky Theater was based in the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater, until 1886 when a new building was constructed. The Bolshoi Kamenny Theater was then rebuilt and handed over to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which is still located there.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera ‘Eugene Onegin’ premier, 1879
On the stage of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater in St. Petersburg the Russian musical theater was born. In addition to French and Italian operas, it began to produce original Russian operas. That was where Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and then Ruslan and Lyudmila had their premiere. That was also where Petipa’s innovative productions – Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, and Giselle – were presented to the public for the first time. There, Petipa, having become friends with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, staged the legendary Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
3. It changed its name several times
Maria Alexandrovna Empress of Russia
The theater got its current name in 1886, after it moved from the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater to another building, where it is located today. It was called “Mariinsky” in honor of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Alexander II, and who was a great admirer of the theater arts.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the theater was stripped of its historical name, since all references to the tsarist heritage were being erased. In 1935, the theater was named after a revolutionary leader, Sergei Kirov, and became known as the Kirov Theater.
At the behest of its new artistic director, Valery Gergiev, after the collapse of the USSR the theatre’s historical name, Mariinsky, was restored in 1992.