* Putin to attend opening of $700-million theatre
* Mariinsky is headed by leading world conductor
* Russia aims to make it a major cultural landmark
By Liza Dobkina
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, May 1 It has been
variously described as a sleek piece of modernism or an ugly
shopping centre, but whatever Russians think of the exterior of
St Petersburg's new Mariinsky Theatre, they will finally get to
see inside the much-debated building at its grand opening on
President Vladimir Putin will lead a select crowd of guests
to the first performance at Mariinsky II, a 2,000-seat theatre,
which, at a cost of $700 million, ranks among the most expensive
cultural projects ever built.
The new building stands near the 19th century Mariinsky
Theatre, one of the great showcases of Russian culture and which
became home to the opera and ballet companies renowned around
the world under their Soviet-era name of Kirov.
But the new theatre has divided opinion in Putin's home
town, where critics have dubbed the glass-and-limestone building
the "Mariinsky mall", incongruous among the other elegant
19th-century buildings in the Imperial capital and the ugly
sister of its ornately gilded predecessor.
Valery Gergiev, head of the project and regarded by many as
the greatest living orchestral conductor, has promoted the plan
to build a new Mariinsky for 10 years, capitalising on Putin's
desire to show that Russia no longer lags behind the West.
He has promised that doubters will eat their words when they
see the interior of the 80,000-square-feet (7,400-square-metre)
"The inauguration of Mariinsky II will reaffirm and
strengthen the great tradition of the theatre, opening the way
for the future when it will be possible to create cutting-edge
works of art and innovative performances, which previously we
could not even dream of," said Gergiev.
"I feel certain that 25 years from now, Mariinsky II will be
seen as a St Petersburg landmark in its own right, recognised
for its superb acoustics, dazzling production facilities and
unsurpassed level of audience comfort."
Gergiev will conduct at the opening, which will be broadcast
live on television. Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, Russian opera
singer Olga Borodina, and violinist and viola player Yuri
Bashmet are among the performers at the lavish gala performance.
The new theatre is one of several grand projects intended to
show what Russia can achieve, most notably the 2014 Sochi Winter
Olympics, Putin's pet idea.
With the latest technology -- although it has a chandelier
in the VIP box to make prominent guests feel at home -- the
Mariinsky II is a world away from the original Mariinsky
Theatre, which was sumptuously decorated in gold and red.
Built in 1860, the pastel green Mariinsky was the focus of
cultural life in St Petersburg for decades.
Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker was premiered there in 1892.
Eighteen years earlier, Mussorgsky first showed his opera Boris
Godunov to a packed house.
But Gergiev, who turns 60 on the day of the concert, decided
the old Mariinsky theatre was no longer adequate for his plans.
As the head of the ballet and opera companies that were
called the Kirov Opera and Kirov Ballet in Soviet times before
reverting to the Mariinsky name in 1992, Gergiev runs a huge
cultural empire which needed a modern home.
The project has not been without difficulties. Costs soared
when one design was killed after work had already started, and
at least three firms have been involved in the construction.
Gergiev denied last year there was serious discontent in the
ballet troupe over pay and conditions after dancers wrote a
letter of complaint.
But the Mariinsky has largely avoided the scandals that
Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre has suffered in recent years.
Not only was Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the
Bolshoi Ballet, almost blinded in an acid attack in January but
the Bolshoi's programme has at times faced criticism since the
theatre reopened in 2011 after a six-year renovation.
Ballerina Viktoria Krasnokutskaya was one of several
performers who said the new technical equipment at the Mariinsky
made a huge difference, allowing scenes to be changed easily and
"Inside the theatre, the seating area is very beautiful ...
It is very light and spacious," she said.
Designed by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects, the
interior of the building glows in light reflected from wall
panels made of Italian onyx that stretch several storeys high.
Glass and metal walkways slice through the building, which
looks over a canal at the old Mariinsky through large windows.
The two theatres are connected by a bridge and performances will
be staged at both venues.
The two buildings could hardly be more different. The new
one stands out against the late 19th-century edifices that
surround it in a city landscape immortalised in the works of
Gogol and Dostoyevsky.
"(Before it was built) there were fears that this would look
like an apartment block or a shopping mall. People do not
understand what this building is," said city resident Irene
Builders demolished an entire block for the new theatre,
razing the constructivist building of the Palace of Culture of
the First Five Year Plan and the remnants of a Lithuanian market
and school, built in 1930.
Alexander Margolis, head of the St Petersburg branch of the
Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments of History and
Culture, said they had destroyed the World Heritage Site that
lies at the heart of the city.
"I think it's not just an urban planning mistake, in my
opinion this is an urban crime because there was an intrusion
into one of the most unique corners of St Petersburg's
historical centre," he said.
Alexei Kovalev, a deputy in St Petersburg's legislative
assembly, said the building was "disgusting".
"My opinion is that it should be torn down," he said. "I
don't care what is inside it. Gergiev should be fired."
(Reporting by Liza Dobkina; Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing
by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)