Soaring glass for Mariinsky's modern second home

MOSCOW Tue Nov 22, 2011 5:17am EST

Yana Selina, playing the Brave Fairy, and members of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) perform Sleeping Beauty during a rehearsal at the Royal Opera House in London August 14, 2009.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Yana Selina, playing the Brave Fairy, and members of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) perform Sleeping Beauty during a rehearsal at the Royal Opera House in London August 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

MOSCOW (Reuters) - History and modern design will come together in a new $629 million, glass-walled concert hall to be built as a futuristic second home for St. Petersburg's 19th century Mariinsky theatre.

The Mariinsky Second Stage expected to open next year across the canal from the grand original theatre will be a contemporary performance space with soaring glass walls and a roof-top ampitheatre designed to attract younger and wider audiences to the performing arts in Russia's former imperial city.

The hall's elevated public spaces and floor-to-ceiling windows will take advantage of views over the golden cathedral domes which adorn St. Petersburg's dramatic skyline, according to the Canadian architect chosen to design it.

Jack Diamond, founder of Toronto-based Diamond and Schmitt Architects Inc, took over the Mariinsky II design in 2009 with a promise to submit a low-cost functional modern opera house in 2012.

Diamond told Reuters the design, inspired by his firm's creation of the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts in Toronto, would forego the gilding and fanciful decorations in order to deliver a space dedicated to delivering the best atmosphere for enjoying the performances inside it.

"I believe you put the money where it's important and don't indulge in architectural extravagance that has nothing to do with the acoustics, the comfort of the audience or the comfort of the public areas," Diamond said.

The cost of the state-sponsored Mariinsky's expansion has risen sixfold from its 2003 estimate of $100 million -- and construction has been delayed over funding controversies.

Mariinsky's artistic director Valery Gergiev was so impressed by Diamond's Four Seasons building in Toronto, he invited the architect to St. Petersburg to seek his vision for the Mariinsky II.

"While St. Petersburg components are there, this will be a contemporary expression," Diamond said.

Today, the site with its bare grey walls still looks far from completion, but the new stage will be the third and most modern-looking building of the Mariinsky enterprise, which holds 600 shows a year and employs 2,500 people.

Diamond said the marriage of modern glass with the nearby Mariinsky's existing 19th century architecture are the necessary elements that will help attract wider, younger audiences to Russia's rich cultural traditions.

"It will reinforce the great support that the opera enjoys," he said.

The new theatre comes in the wake of a nearly $700 million revamp of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. That renovation was plagued with scandal but eventually achieved the aim of returning the Bolshoi to its 19th-century gilded and bronzed glory after centuries of use and decades abuse under communist rule.

The Mariinsky II promises no such splash.

"There will be no red plush or gilding, it's not the Bolshoi. I believe in authenticity, and the authenticity of a contemporary building is different from that of a historical building," Diamond said.

The Mariinsky troupe will move to the Second Stage building after it opens its six stages and several rehearsal rooms to spare the historic original building for its own renovation.

The renovation of the main Mariinsky stage was originally planned to kick off in 2006, had the Second Stage been ready.

The 79-year-old Diamond said his first Russian project has not been an easy one so far, with money out of his control and "too many authorities involved."

"It doesn't help the design," Diamond said. "We have to accomplish our goals by different means - by persuasion, by technical know-how."

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Lidia Kelly and Paul Casciato)

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