The German-born Empress Catherine the Great promoted opera and had two opera houses built: The Hermitage Theater in the Winter Palace and the Bolshoi Kamennii Teatr (literally: Big Stone Theater) was finished in 1783. The court orchestra played for the opera, and the wealthy Catherine imported many Italian composers, most notably Paisiello
, (1776 to 1784). Russian national opera was developed in the 1830s, primarily by Glinka, who participated in several historic premieres.
The site of the Imperial Opera, the Stone Theater, was clearly outmoded by the middle of the nineteenth century and was replaced by a new edifice, the magnificent Mariinsky Theater, which opened in 1860. The old Stone Theater building was renovated and remodeled to serve as the site of the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music.
The orchestra originally founded in 1729 continued to be the orchestra of the Imperial Opera in its new building. Almost immediately, one of the great names in Russian musical history arrived to take charge of it and the opera: Edward Napravnik
. Beginning as an assistant conductor on the opera staff in 1863, he rose to take charge of the theater for more than 50 years. Under his rule, all of Tchaikovsky
's operas, most of Rimsky-Korsakov
's, and the great Mussorgsky
operas Boris Godunov and Khovanschina received their premieres on the Mariinsky stage. Napravnik
was open to all the important developments of European music, and the Mariinsky was one of the first places outside Germany where Wagner
's four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen was played in its entirety.
Also under Napravnik
the Imperial Ballet rose to world fame under its director and choreographer Marius Petipa. The orchestra thus played the original performances of Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.
The Court Orchestra remained the only permanent and regular orchestra in town until, after the Revolution, the Philharmonic was found. All musical activities were consolidated under the control of the State and various organs of the Communist Party, including the opera, whose repertory consistently reflected political realities. In 1935, following the assassination of popular local Party leader S. M. Kirov, the theater and its opera, ballet, and orchestra were renamed after him in the interim it had been called by the bureacratic name "State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet" since 1920.
Cultural exchange with the U.S.S.R. and the West beginning in the 1950s made the organization world-famous as the "Kirov Ballet" and the "Kirov Opera." It saw the premieres of such important works as Shostakovich
's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk and Prokofiev
's War and Peace and Cinderella. During World War II, the company was evacuated before the German blockade of the city.
While many important conductors appeared, standards declined in comparison with Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and the Leningrad Philharmonic. This situation has been entirely reversed by the reigns of two strong head conductors, Yuri Temirkanov (1976-1988) and Valery Gergiev
(1988 to present). Both of them, especially Gergiev
, strengthened all aspects of the theater's musical performance, including great improvements in orchestral ensemble. Gergiev
has established concert series and his orchestra now rivals the Philharmonic, and the opera and ballet has similarly risen to the level of the Moscow Bolshoi.
Following the end of the Communist State, the Kirov Theater reverted to its original name and the orchestra is now also called the Mariinsky, but both are still often called the Kirov, particularly in the West.