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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kirov Asserts Itself in Celebration of Rimsky-Korsakov

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the Mongol hordes descend screaming, the Russian city of Kitezh simply disappears. Only the church bells remain, ringing in the mist.

So goes Rimsky-Korsakov's great opera "A Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia," which was performed Sunday night at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater.

For decades the opera was lost. It was first performed in 1904 in the Mariinsky, but the work's religious overtones kept it on the censor's shelf after 1917.

Sunday, as part of an eight-day festival celebrating the works of composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, "Kitezh" again took the St. Petersburg stage.

The four-hour production was cleverly staged, with Tatar hordes literally rising up from the ground in the midst of the heroine Fevronia's wedding.

While culture has been on a sharp decline elsewhere in the city and throughout Russia, the Kirov Opera, which performs regularly at the Mariinsky, has grown again into a great company.

The Kirov puts on seven or eight entirely new shows a year -- fewer than many Western theaters but quite a lot for Russia in the 1990s.

The varied repertoire keeps Mariinsky's budding stars from defecting, according to conductor Valery Gergyev.

"They know that if they stay here they can become international stars, thanks to the Mariinsky name," Gergyev said. "They can also develop their talents thanks to the changing repertoire, which includes not only Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but Mozart and Wagner and Beethoven."

Compare that with the Russian Philharmonic a few blocks away, which plays limp, ragged music despite boasting world-class conductor Yury Timer-kanov. According to Timerkanov, his orchestra has been losing musicians to the West for over 20 years.

Thanks in part to a slick, Western-style "Friends of the Kirov" campaign, the opera company earns 80 percent of its own budget. The remaining 20 percent comes from government aid.

Gergyev, however, said he finds the concept of money boring.

"The theater should be magic, so I think our funding should remain secret too," he said.

The Rimsky-Korsakov festival is one in a string of yearly tributes to Russian composers. Last year the Mariinsky staged a Prokofiev festival that covered most of the composer's major works. Two years ago, a Mussorgsky festival that traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, earned praise from the Western press.

Rimsky-Korsakov, born 150 years ago in Tikhvin, a small town north of St. Petersburg, is famous for resurrecting and completing the unfinished operas of Mussorgsky and Borodin -- among them "Boris Godunov," "Khovanshchina" and "Prince Igor."

He also composed sweeping operas of his own, including "Sadko" and "Ivan the Terrible."