Valery Gergiev, Artistic Director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, has brought some of the greatest Russian operas to the Met, introducing many of his home country's most talented artists. The perpetually busy maestro wraps up his stint at the end of the current season.
You conducted Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Met last December, and just finished a run of his first opera, The Gambler. What is it that fascinates you about him?
Many things. I think his ability to speak a theatrical language is incredible. He writes music for the theater, whether it's ballet or opera. Take The Gambler, for example. It starts like a chamber opera. Then it gets a little bit rowdier, and then there is an explosion in the gambling scene. The drive, the madness, the excitement are extremely high. This is a unique scene in the history of opera. It has an enormous concentration of energy because Prokofiev was able to catch so many different details. His pencil is extremely sharp.
Your association with the Met has always been close but especially so since you became Principal Guest Conductor?
You know, I never think about the positions I occupy. But the Met became a very big part of my life. Starting in the early '90s, we practically wrote a new chapter of the Met's history together, bringing so many Russian artists here who became a constant presence. People like Sergei Leiferkus or Vladimir Chernov in the earlier years, or Olga Borodina and Anna Netrebko more recently. And there were many, many others. It gives me a huge feeling of satisfaction that we did so many important productions. I think there is the story of what I did personally with the Met. And the other story is what the Met and its leaders and myself as a leader of the Mariinsky could do together to bring unusual things to New York. I think both lines, both tracks, were very important to us and we focused on our partnership very seriously.
What were the other highlights of these 16 years for you?
I started with a new production of Otello with Plšcido Domingo [in 1994]. His performance was unforgettable. You don't have that many opportunities throughout your life to experience anything like this. It was great for me to work with very dear friends like Plšcido, or Karita Mattila in Salome, or Ben Heppner, or the fantastic Leonie Rysanek. Also Parsifal with Ren_ Pape: I remember it as the most incredible, focused music-making.
How about working with James Levine?
It was great to cooperate with Jimmy because he put so much of his own artistry into our collaboration. He's a phenomenon. He's worked with the company for so many years, and as a great orchestra builder, he did so much for the Met. Everybody who conducts here comes with great respect for the orchestra and its Music Director. And at the same time everything is very free and flexible when we want to go our own way. It's to Jimmy's credit that you can come and conduct this orchestra and ask whatever you wish from them and they will do it.
Why is your tenure as Principal Guest Conductor coming to an end?
Unlike what people sometimes think: that I like to do too many things: I'm totally serious about everything I do. Which means I have to find time and energy and resources. I took over quite a big responsibility last year as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. And we're building a second opera house at the Mariinsky. So I have to make sure I can maintain maximum focus and concentration and do it all really well. Otherwise I will be not very happy. But I'm looking forward to continuing my friendship with the Met, with the orchestra, and with everyone who makes possible all those powerful and emotional evenings.