The Kennedy Center is in the midst of Focus on Russia, a two-season initiative highlighting the finest in Russian opera, ballet, and music. Epic Russian literature, history, and classic tales as envisioned by Russian artists come to vibrant life with the return of the popular Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra, the Mariinsky Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet.
One of the most influential companies in classical dance for the past 200 years, Mariinsky Ballet continues to set the standard in stage production. After struggling for survival under the Soviet regime, Mariinsky Ballet: formerly known by its Soviet name Kirov: has firmly established its place on the world stage and gone on to display its unmistakable style in appearances around the globe. Time Magazine says, "It is the combination of athleticism with lyricism and artistry that makes the company unique."
February 9 _14 at the Kennedy Center, the St. Petersburg _based company presents Konstantin Sergeyev's bravado-fueled 1952 version of The Sleeping Beauty. Sergeyev's choreography follows from the Petipa original but packs more dance into every act, largely leaving behind pantomime and telling the story through big and beautiful movements. From an evil curse of 100 years' sleep to a romantic awakening with the help of good fairies, it's a story for all ages. And like any good fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty is enchanting whether seeing it for the first time or the fiftieth.
Founded in 1776, the Bolshoi Ballet became a symbol of excellence in the classical tradition of Soviet-era Russia, garnering a nearly mythical reputation in the West through a series of tours organized by the great 20th-century impresario Sol Hurok. After a decade-long absence, the company made a triumphant return to prominence in the United States during its Kennedy Center _produced tour in June 2000, and also performed as part of the Center's ballet seasons in 2002 and 2007.
Now, the company returns to the Kennedy Center February 16 _21 with a powerhouse production of former artistic director Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus. The classic story of a man who falls from king to slave, rises from gladiator to rebel leader, and dies a martyr, Spartacus is filled with bravura dancing, epic staging, and heart-pounding drama. While the tale is set in Rome, its themes have links to Russia's historic struggle with class and despotism. This triumph of storytelling and dance, with "its brilliant, base theatrical power" (The Daily Telegraph, London), will have audiences standing in solidarity with Spartacus.
St. Petersburg, Russia's world renowned Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra, led and conducted by Artistic Director Valery Gergiev, returns to the Opera House February 27 _March 7 for a weeklong engagement, including a fully staged production of Prokofiev's War and Peace.
On March 6 & 7, the company presents a monumental opera event, their fully staged production of War and Peace, a presentation by The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Series for Artistic Excellence. Prokofiev's two-act opera based on the epic novel tells the story of Russian society during the Napoleonic Era. Tolstoy's iconic characters, advancing armies, and rebellious townsfolk swirl across the stage's massive revolving mound. This 2000 production, co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera, features a cast of more than 200 and is directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Following the world premiere of this production at the Mariinsky Theatre, London's The Independent said, "Prokofiev's atmospheric music emerges in all its glory thanks to Gergiev's magic in the pit." The New York Times called it a "significant achievement."
Tchaikovsky's riveting opera Eugene Onegin, based on one of the most treasured works of Russian literature, is performed in concert on February 27 for one night only. The Mariinsky's performances of the work at the Kennedy Center in 2003 (as Kirov Opera) were "one of the great musical events of the season" (The Washington Post).
On February 28, the company sings a one-night-only concert version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which combines one of the great baritone roles in the operatic repertory with thunderous choral movements of unprecedented power. Last performed here by the Mariinsky in January 2005, the "fierce, monolithic power" of the score displayed "prismatic shades of orchestral color and an unflagging energy in Gergiev's delivery" (The Washington Post).
On March 3, "An Evening of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, & Borodin in Concert," the Opera sings works from the three most well-known Russian composers who composed in the mid 1800s and were part of a group known as the "Mighty Five." The program includes excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya and The Maid of Pskov (or Ivan the Terrible), as well as Act 3 from Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina and the Polovtsian act from Borodin's Prince Igor.
In "An Evening of Tchaikovsky Operas in Concert," the company sings scenes in concert from three of the composer's creations on March 4. The UK's Telegraph hailed Gergiev for the way he conducts his "fabulous orchestra" and praised the chorus as "stunning" in performances of The Queen of Spades, while the New York Times lauded Mazeppa as "thoroughly compelling [with] ingenious music" and the Moscow Times called Iolanta "a triumph!"
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Jeremy D. Birch is the writer/editor for Kennedy Center News.