Part of identity

The distinctive pistachio green Mariinsky Theatre has stood in a quiet corner of St Petersburg since 1860, though it can trace its history back to 1783, when a theatre was first built on this spot.

The Mariinsky is part of the identity of St Petersburg, which is portrayed in Russian literature as a mystical city.

And if you walk around the Mariinsky on a winter night, it’s not hard to imagine how the ghost of Akaky Akakyevich in Gogol’s short story The Overcoat haunted the surrounding streets.

You will notice how the theatre, unlike opera houses in London, is hidden away from the city centre.

Even in the day, you will feel far away from the crowds milling on Nevsky Prospekt.

It is also at the Mariinsky Theatre that some of Russia’s most important operas were premiered, such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov or Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

This is the place where Tchaikovsky wrote the lush and joyous score for The Sleeping Beauty and where the phenomenally influential choreographer Marius Petipa created its steps.

So by all accounts, this is a special place.

Modern era

Now the Mariinsky and its fading beauty are going to be brought right into the modern age.

The new theatre opens in May, a strikingly contemporary building made of light beige limestone and glass, and seating two thousand people.

It will be located next to the old theatre and near a new concert hall which opened in 2006 - so the Mariinsky will now be made up of three venues.

What the architect says

Canadian architect Jack Diamond believes his new design fits in with the varied architectural style of St Petersburg:

“First of all, there are very few but very significant exceptional structures in St Petersburg – St Isaacs, the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood, Kazan, Nikolai and so on.

“These are beautiful buildings, very exceptional.

“What makes them stand out even more is that the general aggregate of the classical architecture that surrounds them provides a framework, they are a continuous streetscape, between four and six storeys high, a very human scale,

and its consistency right across the city.

“I don’t know of another city in the world that has that size and consistency of scale.

“So keeping that street continuity, and that size and height, is what is part of the historic background.”

This means the new Mariinsky theatre is six storeys high, though it actually has seven floors in total, and instead of classical porticos, glass bay windows identify the main entrance.

These large windows just do not let the light in – they are designed to help to break down barriers, says Jack Diamond.

“By providing transparency into the building, we remove the elitism and mystique about opera and ballet and so forth. We make it highly accessible,”he said.

'Swimming pool'

But the new theatre has come under criticism from architects, public figures and architectural campaigners in St Petersburg.

Many of them say it looks like a swimming pool or a supermarket.

And some of the singers and dancers set to perform in the new building privately agree.

Grigory Revzin is a prominent architectural expert and was one of the judges of the competition for the new design.

He describes the new theatre as something between a department store and McDonalds:

“I spoke about McDonald’s in relation to the façade.

“Moscow has a very big and famous McDonald’s building on Tverskaya street, which is unusual in the rest of the world.

“But wherever it is, McDonald’s looks like McDonald’s.”

The director of the Hermitage museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who was also on the jury for the project, has also been critical of the new design.

The cost of the new theatre and the time it took to approve a design are also part of why the project has attracted criticism.

The bill, which is being footed by the state, has come to 22 billion rubles – or about £460 million.

Choosing the right design

The first architect commissioned to design the new theatre was American Eric Moss in 2002.

But his design was rejected – it did not conform to what the theatre had asked for and the Mariinsky did not like the new design.

Next, a competition was held, which was won by French architect Dominique Perrault in 2003.

But Perrault ran up against problems due to the city’s damp climate, and because his design was found to breach Russian building codes.

Finally, another competition was held, won by Jack Diamond’s firm, Diamond Schmitt.

Grigory Revzin, the architecture critic, says he simply does not find the winning design exciting:

“The main failure [of the new Mariinsky building] is that it’s a very ordinary building, and there is nothing interesting about it.

“It’s grey and boring architecture, and there is so much of it.

“This kind of architecture occupies a huge part of the city. And this is very unpleasant.”

Revzin says that the design was chosen in a hurry by the Mariinsky’s artistic and general director, Valery Gergiev:

“It’s not so much ‘fault’ as it is just disappointing.

“Initially he really wanted to build something unusual.

“It all began with the project of Eric Moss.

“Then there was Dominique Perrault’s project, both of which were wonderful.

“But the process of architecture is long, and Gergiev is an artistic person, he wanted an immediate result and he didn’t have patience for it. He became disappointed very quickly.”

Jack Diamond has an interesting take on his design choices that goes some way to answering Revzin’s charge that the new theatre is too ordinary:

“Too often, every architect wants to be highly individualistic.

“There’s a sort of excessive individualism, of everybody saying ‘me, me, me.’

“It’s the ‘me’ generation.

“Well, this building is not doing that. It’s saying, ‘I’m part of this city and I want to contribute to the aggregate.”

Gergiev himself praises the new design.

He has asked critics to hold their fire until the theatre is opened and they can see the completed building - and experience a performance inside the auditorium.

Critics in St Petersburg are reasonably conservative in their taste, so few modern designs would go down well in any case.

And history shows a long line of new buildings that have been criticised when they first opened, from the Eiffel Tower and the Guggenheim museum in New York - both now firm favourites.

Practical building

Meanwhile, one striking feature of the new theatre is how accessible it will be to disabled and elderly people compared with other buildings in the city - which have few ramps or other facilities.

At the entrance to the theatre are escalators leading both to and from the cloakroom downstairs.

Russian winters mean that audiences arrive with heavy coats and boots – so a cloakroom is not just a convenience, it is essential if you want to enjoy an evening at the theatre without being encumbered.

There is also a ramp that brings visitors from the ground to the main level, as well as lifts that are accessible to everyone.

Jack Diamond said:

“You can always accommodate the handicapped in some kind of back-of-house manner – they can get into the freight elevator or [have] a ramp somewhere else.

“What’s important is to give equivalence.

“If you want to give dignity it’s [about] much more than providing accessibility.

“It’s providing an accessibility that the able-bodied would choose.”

The true test

The test of whether the new Mariinsky works will not be how it looks from the outside but what audience experiences.

Diamond says that the new theatre will have good sight lines from every seat, so there will not be anyone struggling to see the stage as happens in some older theatres.

It is yet to be determined how singers, music critics and audiences will rate its acoustics.

Mariinsky director Valery Gergiev says they are excellent and Jack Diamond stresses that he doesn’t take the issue lightly.

Critics and fans alike will be able to finally make up their minds on the opening night on May 2.

Gergiev will conduct a glamorous gala concert featuring an array of stars including Placido Domingo, Yuri Bashmet, Ulyana Lopatkina and Anna Netrebko, and that’s followed by two more days of opera and ballet.

But in the early hours of the morning, after the opera soloists have taken off their makeup, the stage sets dismantled, and the thousands of eager guests sent home, there will still be a mysterious, other-worldly atmosphere on Theatre Square.

Music: Boris Lifanovsky, principal cellist, Bolshoi Theatre playing the Pas d'action (Adagio) from the 2nd act of The Sleeping Beauty