Russian triumph sets stage for global success

FOR 15 minutes, the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre rang with applause, a packed audience calling back the cast seven times. The world's leading diva, Anna Netrebko, and Scotland's national opera company basked in the adulation of the St Petersburg crowd.

Tickets for Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's opera from Sir Walter Scott's tragic novel of warring Scots families, had quickly sold out and were changing hands on the black market for up to 800, double their face value.

Four years ago, Scottish Opera was on its knees. It was beset with financial problems, had lost its permanent chorus and was struggling to prove it had a future.

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But yesterday, the Mariinsky Theatre production – with its Scottish costumes, sets and props, in a show conceived by an award-winning Scots director – was hailed as a triumph.

Critics predicted a bright future on the global stage for the resurgent company, describing the success as an international calling card.

Dafydd Burne Jones, Scottish Opera's staff producer, who went to St Petersburg for the rehearsals, was thrilled to be back in the spotlight. "It's fabulous for us, it's wonderful for us, it's almost a vindication," he said. "It gets us noticed, and people have been enormously complimentary about our working here."

The famed conductor Valery Gergiev had picked the show, by the Scottish director John Doyle, after his visit to the Edinburgh International Festival last summer.

He had been on the look-out for a production of Lucia for Netrebko and was won over by Scottish Opera's innovative production.

Minimalist sets with dark brooding colours caught his eye and a deal was struck to export the production to Russia.

Normally, productions such as this are planned years in advance, but Gergiev was keen to move quickly and, just after Christmas, two containers packed with sets, props and more than 50 costumes were shipped out to the Mariinsky Theatre. The stage floor was sent in pieces.

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Netrebko's costumes had to be remade, but everyone else's were those worn in Scotland: their loose fittings made them easier to adjust.

The diva was delighted with the production and after the show spoke appreciatively of Scottish Opera's contribution, a fact that is bound to be noted in the opera world.

Netrebko said: "What I most appreciate in Doyle's staging is that all characters come very naturally to the singers.

"It feels as though it is all for real. A bel canto opera should never be overloaded with special effects or opulent scenery, and in this respect Doyle's is a very tactful staging that grants the singers the liberty and the space to act. The dark minimalist scenery very much works to the show's advantage."

The return to prominence is expected to mean an increased demand for Scottish Opera's services.

Mr Jones said: "With the audience coming to see it here (in St Petersburg], it puts the company name on show and in front of a very large international public.

"It's a tremendous piece of publicity for Scotland. This is very much on the international stage."

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He went on: ''There are a bunch of posters all over the town, in the hotels, and we have just had another TV station turn up to do an interview. It's clearly a big public event. We have got a good deal of news coverage out of it on national TV."

The opera's general director, Alex Reedijk, was in St Petersburg for the performance and was overwhelmed at the reception it received.

He said: "We ended up with a 15-minutes standing ovation. I think that's a measure of, not only how much Anna is a local girl done good, but also how much they enjoyed her performance.

"I'm delighted our work survived being transported across the frozen steppes, and it was a full house. It looked handsome and smart.

"I'm hopeful it will lead to other business in general because, from Europe's perspective, Scotland is very small and a long distance away. With Europe, it will seem a quiet sense of Scottish Opera being in a good place."

Linda Fabiani, the culture minister, has already hailed the production as "a mark of the tremendous talent being nurtured in Scotland".

Kenneth Walton, the music critic for The Scotsman, said the 18-month lease of Scottish Opera's production, for an undisclosed sum, was very much part of its strategy to exploit commercial opportunities.

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"Any story like this is good news for Scotland and Scottish Opera. The fact that such a prestigious company is taking it up is also testament to its artistic success," he said.

Jonathan Mills, the Edinburgh Festival director, has previously spoken of strengthening links with the Mariinsky. He said exporting Lucia had "already broken down many borders" and he would be inviting the Russians back "again and again".

Galina Stolyarova : Critical acclaim for an artistic triumph

THE enthralling soprano Anna Netrebko made a long-awaited stage comeback, singing the title role in John Doyle's rendition of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, captivating the audience with the exuberance of her voice and stage presence.

The role of Lucia in this ascetic, elegant production, which won high acclaim when it premiered at the Scottish Opera two years ago, perfectly suited Netrebko's voice and stage personality. The diva was on top form vocally, with a fluid, soaring style.

Doyle's minimalist and unorthodox staging, where black and charcoal grey are the predominant colours and the scenery – which consists solely of steps and square columns designed by Liz Ashcroft – created a winning environment for Netrebko, contrasting visual simplicity with tonal opulence.

Returning to the stage after more than six months on maternity leave, the singer was sparkling.

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Netrebko's voice has gained a richer, lower register and offers an exuberant velvet timbre that is captivating with warmth and colour. The effect was rather like being submerged in pleasantly viscous honey.

Artistically, Lucia revealed a new side of Netrebko. Gone was the girlish vivaciousness of her moves. Not a hint of that was felt at the premiere. Swiftness of gesture was replaced by the languid sensuality of an Art Nouveau nymph.

• Galina Stolyarova is the chief reporter at the St Petersburg Times.

High note for a resurgent company

SCOTTISH Opera's years of rolling crisis reached a nadir in 2004. The company, with an annual budget of about 9 million, was said to have accumulated debts of 7 million.

In a radical cost-saving move, more than 30 members of its staff chorus were laid off, and the singers took their anger to a protest concert at the Edinburgh International Festival. The company had also lost its chief executive and chairman.

Opera in Scotland has long struggled with the perception that it is an elite art form more at home in Milan or Salzburg than Glasgow – while Scottish Opera was attacked for going to the government for repeated stop-gap hand-outs.

But in recent years under its general director, Alex Reedijk, appointed in 2005, the company has avoided another crisis, while raising its public profile. Finances have been stabilised and a more populist touch has helped attract audiences.

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A new music director, the Italian conductor Francesco Corti, was also appointed in 2007.

It has notched up successes with its Five:15 series of short new operas produced by Scottish writers and composers, from Ian Rankin to Craig Armstrong.

The first production was a sell-out in both Edinburgh and Glasgow and a second series of Five:15 operas is now in the works.

It returned to the Edinburgh International Festival with The Two Widows in 2008, though earning mixed reviews. Last year also premiered the director David McVicar's sell-out production of Verdi's old favourite, La Traviata.

Scottish Opera will have staged five new productions this 2008-9 season – with The Secret Marriage, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Jules Massenet's Manon on the bill with La Traviata and The Two Widows. Next month it takes La Traviata to Belfast.

In 2006, it was allocated an extra 200,000 to tour productions to Inverness and Aberdeen – with touring Scotland outside the central belt still costly. The company still faces questions, however, over whether it can continue to deliver enough full-scale opera productions around Scotland.

"They have certainly stabilised the situation financially. It's still early days for seeing what artistic investment is being put in," said The Scotsman's classical music critic, Ken Walton. "There's an awful lot more to be done to increase the amount that's available for home audiences."

Captivated by Scott's tragic tale

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GAETANO Donizetti's decision to base his opera Lucia di Lammermoor on Sir Walter Scott's tale of warring families, The Bride of Lammermoor, was just part of 19th-century Europe's love affair with Scotland and its famous novelist.

Of scores of Scottish-linked operas, such as Bizet's The Fair Maid of Perth, it is the most famous.

Lucia di Lammermoor was first performed in Naples in 1837, and is a staple of the modern opera repertoire. Scottish Opera's new version opened in 2007.

The opera tells of the tragic love between the offspring of two Scottish families, Lucia and Edgardo Ravenswood, who lost his family's lands to Lucia's ambitious and powerful brother, Enrico.

Enrico forces Lucia to marry Arturo, in an arranged match, and gives her a forged letter from Edgardo, renouncing their love. After she has signed the marriage contract, Edgardo appears at Enrico's castle, declaring his love.

After the marriage festivities get under way, in the famous mad scene, Lucia emerges from the bridal chamber where she has stabbed her new husband to death, hallucinating about her marriage to Edgardo.

Later, waiting to confront Enrico among the Ravenswood tombs, Edgardo instead learns of Lucia's death, draws a dagger and stabs himself.

Diva who started out cleaning the theatre

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ANNA Netrebko began her opera career cleaning floors at the Mariinsky Theatre. Today the 37-year-old is seen as its greatest modern diva.

On Wednesday night, hundreds of the theatre's staff, from ordinary choir members to ticket saleswomen, flocked backstage after the show to welcome the soprano back after more than six months on maternity leave.

Her first unlikely appearance on the opera stage was as the back half of a Firebird in Le Coq d'or. But she took Russia by storm with her 1994 debut as Suzanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. International fame came with her 1995 debut in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera.

She later was the first opera singer on Time Magazine's list of the world's most 100 influential people.

She returned to the stage in St Petersburg after taking time off for the birth of her first child, a son named Tiago, whose father is fellow singer, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott.

Netrebko kept her return low-key. "She made a conscious decision of choosing the Mariinsky stage for her return as she sought to muffle the stresses of a stage comeback," said Mariinsky spokeswoman Galina Pavlova.

"This stage feels like home, and her devoted audience feels almost as close as family."

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