The essence of artistry

All eyes at the reception following the gala opening of the new Mariinsky II opera house were on the supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

She is indeed freakishly beautiful, a sort of Grace Kelly on stilts, but any chance of your Slow Lane man catching some of her thoughts on Russian culture evaporated when the assembled press corps was unceremoniously bundled out of the building.

I am exaggerating slightly; it would be more accurate to say that we were uninvited, on the grounds that the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had opened the occasion in St Petersburg in calculatedly un-tsar-like fashion – taking his seat not in the VIP box but in the stalls – and who had stumped up more than £400m for the building, had decided to stay on for the party.

I wasn’t expecting the opening gala to deliver much in terms of musical or terpsichorean meat – more a series of bonbons. I was both right and wrong; there were some pretty kitschy moments, the truly ghastly Fantasia for Piano on the theme of Figaro’s Cavatina vulgarly performed by Denis Matsuev, and a Soviet-style children’s chorus version of Gounod’s Ave Maria. But there were also some moments when the highest artistic values triumphed over empty glitz.

I doubt Uliana Lopatkina knows anything other than high artistic standards; her performance as the early-20th-century ballerina Anna Pavlova being put through her paces by her teacher Cecchetti was quite astonishing in its grace and control. Lopatkina’s bow, with the merest hint of acknowledgment towards the exceptional fiddle-playing of Leonidas Kavakos (on stage also to deliver the solo violin part), was in itself a thing of wonder, of a haughtiness and grandeur no non-Russian prima ballerina could match.

Sticking to ballet, I was also mesmerised by the almost feral slinkiness of Diana Vishneva in Alonso’s Carmen Suite; earlier in the day we caught Vishneva practising her role in Bolero quite nonchalantly on top of a table on the new Mariinsky stage, while we visited its state-of-the-art backstage facilities. She has a very different quality from the classically pure Lopatkina, but is just as watchable.

Who would deliver the goods in the singing department? You could not fail to admire the 72-year-old Plácido Domingo, delivering Siegmund’s “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond” from Die Walküre with heroic panache, even if not quite with the burnished tone of yesteryear, or the sterling professionalism of Anna Netrebko, who overcame a slight frog in her throat early on to come through Lady Macbeth’s demanding “Nel di della Vittoria” with flying colours and then find her best voice in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

But there are levels of artistry beyond the most sterling professionalism. There is even something beyond artistry itself: the visceral communication of the deepest and strongest human emotions, which Lorca called duende. The duende for me came only once during this gala; it made its presence felt when Olga Borodina sang Delilah’s aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.

The St Petersburg-born mezzo is approaching her 50th birthday; she is amply built, both physically and vocally. She sang so thrillingly, with such dark, smoky sensuality and emotional power, that perhaps for the first time in its young life the new Mariinsky opera house collectively held its breath. We were in the presence of greatness; not the greatness of the great leader, but of a human being opening her heart and communicating that through her voice.

Of course it is not easy to do that; it requires technique as well as duende. This was the message conveyed in a recent interview by the young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti on the subject of teaching music to children. She spoke of a “worrying general tendency, a fear of discipline, a fear of enforced concentration, and a slight hysteria about the nature of fun.” Better to stay with one instrument than keep switching, she suggested, if a “child is to have that feeling of satisfaction in their stomach when they have made something work because they stuck at it.”

Benedetti speaks not just as a well-known soloist but as the “Big Sister” of the Scottish Big Noise scheme, based on Venezuela’s hugely successful El Sistema youth music programme. I hope her words are heeded. In Russia there has never been a shortage of talented young singers, musicians and dancers prepared to sacrifice much youthful fun on the altar of technique and artistic excellence. You could argue that sometimes the sacrifice goes too far; but as the audience in Mariinsky II looked at and listened to Borodina, Lopatkina and Vishneva they might well have felt, as Natalia Vodianova put it, “proud of Russia all over again.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.