The leading Wagner conductor in Russia and long-time head of Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg spoke with DW about "his" Wagner, Bayreuth in Russia and, for the first time, about the Evgeny Nikitin controversy.
DW: What can we expect in the Mariinsky Theater during the Wagner anniversary year of 2013?
Valery Gergiev: Wagner's trip to Russia in 1863, during which he gave six concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, has not been forgotten. Russian opera lovers were thrilled with the music - including members of the tsar's family. Wagner was offered the post that I now occupy: St. Petersburg's general music director. Very few people know this, but he said yes. However, shortly after he left Russia, he received an incredible offer from King Ludwig of Bavaria. Bad luck for us.
But to your question: We see it as very important to celebrate the Wagner year appropriately. In our theater, the "Ring" as well as other Wagner productions will be put on. Next fall, there will also be a premiere of a "Meistersinger" production, making our Wagner canon complete.
No other composer is as present in your repertoire as Richard Wagner. What's your personal connection to this composer?
I also conduct a lot of Russian and Italian music, but Wagner does indeed have a special place in my repertoire. There's a personal reason for that: When I was a beginner at 28, I was allowed to do "Lohengrin" at the Mariinsky Theater. That was a grandiose event for me: the power, the vehemence, the wonderful orchestra, and, at the same time, the tenderness and grandeur of Elsa and Lohengrin throughout. That completely changed me as a conductor and decided my fate in this theater. After such an influential experience, the orchestra perceived me in a completely different way. So my journey started in Richard Wagner's terrain. Today I perform nine Wagner operas.
After becoming the theater's director, you first led a production of "Parsifal" - a high point of Wagner's work. Why?
We had the opportunity to do the first "Parsifal" at all in modern Russia. Working with this score brought the orchestra forward in spurts. We were all taken with the music and searched for this unique, holy "Parsifal" sound. It was followed by "The Flying Dutchman," "Lohengrin," the "Ring" and "Tristan and Isolde." Nevertheless, the Wagner project at the Mariinsky Theater is far from complete.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Wagner was performed in Russia more than in Germany. Do you support a renaissance of the Russian "Wagner-ism" of the same intensity?
Yeah. But it can only come about if we go our own way and don't just copy the Wagner productions in Stuttgart, Munich or Berlin that I really appreciate. If you copy, then you're relegated to second place.
An entire generation of Wagner vocalists has now emerged from the Mariinsky Theater. But things turned out badly for the first Mariinsky singer to try and scale the Olympus of Wagner performance in Bayreuth. Evgeny Nikitin had to bow out ahead of the premiere due to rumors that he had Nazi tattoos.
What happened to Evgeny Nikitin in Bayreuth is, in my opinion, in no way flattering for the Bayreuth Festival. I still haven't heard anything regarding the festival leadership's actual position on the issue. Nikitin is an extremely gifted singer. He has nothing to do with Nazi symbolism and certainly nothing to do with Nazi ideology. His family suffered greatly during World War II, and both of his grandfathers died in the war. He comes from St. Petersburg, a city that suffered Nazi crimes like no other.
I think my colleagues in Bayreuth handled the fate of this young singer from Russia without much sympathy and perhaps not entirely honestly. But Nikitin is not going to be the victim in this affair. He will certainly not stop singing Wagner operas, particularly since he's so good at it. I think that most professionals in Germany have noticed that by now. So Evgeny Nikitin will continue to sing in Berlin, in Munich, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and, of course, here in the Mariinsky Theater.
Are you looking for any kind of reconciliation with Bayreuth - between the Mariinsky Theater and the Wagner festival?
I never think about Bayreuth in particular. And you know why? Bayreuth takes place at almost the exact same time as our White Nights Festival. At one point, there was talk of me taking part in Bayreuth with "Parsifal." But I'll probably never have the chance. We have our own Bayreuth here.
So far Valery Gergiev has been the only Russian theater director able to revive the Wagner tradition in the venue he manages. During the Soviet era, Wagner was seen as taboo in Russia, if not outright forbidden. The reason was the Nazis' misappropriation of Wagner's music as well as the suspicious individualism of Wagnerian heroes.
Since the Russian premiere of "Parsifal" in 1998 in St. Petersburg, Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater colleagues have worked on bringing about a Wagner renaissance. Today, nearly the entire repertoire of the German composer can be seen on the famous Mariinsky stage. It was also here that the first and only Russian "Ring" production after the October Revolution was performed. In doing so, the theater hearkens back to the legendary status Wagner had achieved in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th century.