Classical Music in St Petersburg: How to find hidden treasures
Russia and the former Soviet Union have an excellent reputation for classical music and dance performances. And when visiting St Petersburg, the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theatre will spring to mind. It is the most famous theatre in St Petersburg – and also the most expensive. Are there any other ways of enjoying classical music in St Petersburg, without compromise on quality but less expensive?
Oh yes, and I was surprised how many there are!
On my too brief visa-free 60-hour trip to St Petersburg, I had two nights to spend on music. After some online research and checking out various theatre schedules, I decided to attend performances at the Mikhailovsky Theatre and the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall. I booked the strategically located M-Hotel just off Nevsky Prospect, allowing me to walk there in 5-10minutes and stagger back at night through the upmarket Lend supermarket for champagne and caviar… or, in my case, apples, blueberries and tea cakes!
I booked my tickets on the websites of the theatres, which was very straightforward, as they all have English websites and secure booking sites. No need to go through a middleman at all, or book tours, seriously.
So, here is my experience from my two budget theatre nights, and some other venues, and how to book tickets for the Mariinsky if you really cannot go to St. Petersburg without a visit to its most famous theatre. And you know, I’ll use this as research for my next trip, too, where I shall apply for a visa and stay for at least one week, to do justice to all the churches, buildings, historical sites and museums spanning a very stormy history along with a ton of classical performances.
The first of my two performances in St. Petersburg was to take place in the oldest public theatre of St Petersburg, founded in 1833 by decree of Tsar Nicolai I of Russia, grandson of Catherine the Great. He isn’t best known for his political achievements. In fact, he is often referred to as the classic autocrat, and ascended the throne when still a child, after his neurotic Father Tsar Paul I was assassinated in Mikhailovsky Castle, a fortress-like structure nearby. So, politically, these were dark times, but the arts flourished, with the Mariinsky Theatre opening about 30 years later.
The Mikhailovsky Theatre (sometimes referred to as the Mussorgsky) is in a quietly elegant classicist building on Mikhailovsky Square, with a slightly patina’s original interior. It’s less than 5min walk off Nevsky Prospect. It seems quite common to pass through a security check, and anything bigger than a little handbag or coats must be checked. Its free, but don’t be in a hurry when trying to retrieve your things later.
The Performance of “Corsaire”
I had bought tickets for the ballet “Corsaire” for 500 roubles (6Euro). For this tiny sum, I had a seat in the second circle, little leg room and not much head room either – but an excellent view of the stage. I was surrounded by Russians dressed up to the nines, and when I thought the sold-out performance couldn’t get much fuller, in came those with standing tickets… still, the experience was pleasant and made more relaxing by one long interval.
And the performance? Oh, I had not been a friend of the ballet, and Adolphe Adams’ music certainly isn’t going to make me one, but the dancing was heavenly. The stage, the stage sets, the danging, were wonderfully done, the lighting was genius, and the whole performance was like a fairy tale, that I paid so little attention to the music, they could have danced to anything. It was mesmerisingly beautiful. I wonder what it would have been like to see a ballet where I love the music?
The next three months will see A LOT of the classic ballets… Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Cinderella, Corsaire, La Bayadere – with some well-known Italian and French operas thrown in.
Tickets cost between 500-7500 roubles depending on performance, with cheaper tickets selling out more quickly. Definitely book tickets at least one month in advance.
Theatre website: https://mikhailovsky.ru/en
Getting there: Metro Gostiny Dvor/Nevsky Prospect, 5-10min walk
Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall
My second night of highly reputed musical performances in St. Petersburg was to take place at the famous St. Petersburg Academic Philharmonia named after D. D. Shostakovich, or Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall in short! Purpose-built in 1838 in classicist style and predating Shostakovich by a few years, it has hosted almost every one who’s got a name in classical music. It is home to two of St. Petersburg’s Symphony Orchestras. The Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is Russia’s oldest orchestra, and with Yuri Temirkanov as its chief conductor, is probably the more famous one. The Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1930 and made famous by performing Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 in this very building during the summer of 1942, in the second year of the Leningrad Blockade.
I missed the start of the official Philharmonic Season by thee days, but with an icy wind already blowing round, I did not want to wait much longer! They do, however do plenty of performances through the summer, and a vocal performance of romances and aria by the Abkhazian Soprano Hibla Gerzmava was on offer, and almost sold out three months prior to the performance. I thought this to be a guarantor for quality, and bought a ticket for 35Euro. This gave me a very comfy seat in one of the back rows of the 1500-capacity venue of the Bolshoy Zal, but excellent view and acoustics. Having performed major roles at the Scala, Covent Garden, the Met and some other renowned opera houses, she would be good.
And was she? Oh yes, well worth every cent. She filled a 1500-capacity hall with just her and a pianist easily. Starting of with some Russian composers: Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakow, and Prokofiev. I didn’t know any of the pieces, but they were totally different n character, and sung beautifully. After an interval, it was over to Donizetti, Faure and Verdi, plus numerous encores in Russian, which was clearly what she seemed to enjoy most. Altogether another wonderful night of music, which seemed to put in the shade all the pretty good opera performances I had enjoyed in Berlin this year – this was a notch up the vocal ladder, quite literally, and if you’re into classical music, not to be missed.
The programme in both the Bolshoy (Grand) and Maly (Small) Hall is eclectic, from Russian composers, from Baroque to Modern, international orchestras and chamber music – it pays to have a look well in advance on their website! They will also host concerts throughout the summer outside the main Philharmonic winter season, and they’re pretty much never closed. Tickets cost from 500-5000 roubles, depending on performer, but rarely top 1500 roubles.
I found it altogether much less dressy than the Mikhailovsky Theatre, although people still made an effort. It definitely pays to take a nice dark dress for the ladies and some dark trousers and a shirt for men in order to blend in visually.
Getting there: Metro Gostiny Dvor/Nevsky Prospect, 5min walk
Other renowned venues
I only had tome for two performances in my short 60 hours in St. Petersburg, so I obviously did not try any of these venues in person. These recommendations are based on personal research as well as personal recommendations from fellow music lovers.
If you’re into music and theatre, the area around Mikhailovsky Square is your mecca. Pretty unknown outside Russia, this is another old beautiful theatre with reputable performances of Russian classics and international opera and ballet. Its website is in Russian only, although you can buy tickets through other English-speaking websites. The reward for wading through its Russian website is incredibly cheap tickets for this rather intimate old theatre, between 500-1000 roubles. It might be worth to ask someone in the hotel to book you a ticket.
The St Petersburg Chamber Opera
If you like the Baroque Margravial Opera House of Bayreuth, an Instagram favourite of late, you will love this gilt-and-plaster fest. The venue already looks absolutely stunning, and at prices between 400-200 roubles this is certainly a piece of affordable pomp. There’s something on almost every night, usually established classic operas like Madame Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata and a few Strauss operettas. Some of their performances are also in the Hermitage Theatre.
This was the court theatre of the Winter Palace and you can expect a certain splendour in this intimate 250-seat theatre. If you go to their playbill, there seems to be an awful lot of “Swan Lake”, “Nutcracker”, and “Sleeping Beauty” on, and the spring and summer are a “Swan Lake” perma-run, leading me to suspect this might be a tourist-only show. This is reflected in ticket prices of around 150Euro and some reviews criticizing the quality of the performance. So, while it may be beautiful as a venue, the performance might not. Check before you spend so much money – you can see the theatre as part of the Hermitage State Museum, perhaps enjoy music somewhere else.
St Petersburg Conservatory
The Saint Petersburg Conservatory named after N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov has a concert hall and sometimes puts on concerts which have a reputation of being very high quality. Sadly, the same cannot be said about its website, which is currently barely functional in its English “concerts” section. However, you can get a bit more sense out of the Russian site, but there aren’t that many concerts on.
Saint Petersburg Music Hall
An old 1800s freestanding theatre venue, this seems to offer a bit of lighter entertainment nowadays, like musical and acrobatics. You get the “Best of Rachmaninov” one night and the musical “The Great Gatsby” the next, It seems very popular, and tickets are an absolute steal, from 600-2000 roubles, probably far from tourist land.
The Smolny Cathedral and it Chamber Choir
A relatively young choir, established in 1991, it is known for a mastery of difficult scores and performs in various churches and cathedrals of St. Petersburg along their home of Smolny Cathedral Hall. As far as I could find out they have a box office in or next to Smolny Cathedral Museum
Despite its central locaiton on No 20 Moika river embankment, just a stone’s throw from the Winter Palace, this is somewhat of an insiders tip. They’ve been in existence since 1749, starting out at the St Petersburg Cour Chapel, and have a beautiful venue in a baroque palace
Website: www.capella-spb.ru/en appears to be under contruction – you’ll have to go to the Russian website and real Cyrillic to see what’s on, or pay them a visit! They hold concerts almost daily, and the rococo concert hall looks absolutely stunning. Prices are a very manageable 300-500 roubles per ticket, around 5 Euro.
You will come across this sugary concoction of dripping pink and white if you take a long walk along Nevsky Prospect towards Moscos Station, on the intersection with the Fontanka River by elegant Anichkov Bridge. It is now owned by the City of St. Petersburg, and occasionally holds classical music events in its ornate neo-baroque halls, said to be some of the most lavish in St. Petersburg. There is very little information online about what’s on, but there is a box office and a list of events posted on site. They also do guided tours occasionally, but again, information online is scarce, might be best to go by and check when you first arrive.
Here’s a big theatre building in the tradition of the Mariinsky, just in a different flavour (yellow and built by the Italian Carlo Rossi). Originally a drama theatre, this is where “The Seagull” was first performed to terrible reviews. It still hosts mainly drama productions, with occasional music performances, and has its own ballet company, the Alexandrinsky Imperial Ballet Theatre, which seems to perform an awful lot of “Swan Lake”, and not much else, too. As drama performances are in Russian, so unless you want to see what drama theatre in Russian looks like, you may need to know Russian well to really enjoy this.
And if it HAS TO BE the Mariinsky Theatre…
MAybe you want to blow the budget with 100 EURO for the cheapest ticket at the famous Mariinsky Theatre. And hey, isn’t Swan Lake in St. Petersburg a bit cliched? It is a beautiful ballet, and beautiful music, but its popularity and association with St. Petersburg and Russia turns this one into a bit of a mass performance – where you never know if the quality will be good. Although the Mariinsky should not disappoint. They have an almost continuous run of “Swan Lake” through the summer, catering to the tourist trade. In winter, the programme is much more varied, with a lot more opera, but also ballet, and a lot that you probably cannot see outside Russia. So, how about “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya”? Tickets at the New Mariinsky (the modern building) for this opera start at 400 roubles. If you wish to see a performance in the original grand old theatre, you could try Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” this season, at similar prices. Or, a little more expensive, the very beautiful “Eugen Onegin” by Tchaikowsky, an all-time Russian classic.
If you do want to book, here is the official theatre website, buy them here rather than from very similar-sounding sites where they mark up the tickets: https://www.mariinsky.ru. Purchase well in advance! And yes, these are the cheapest tickets at the main Mariinsky Theatre for an evening ballet performance.
Tickets for the modern “Second Stage” or “New Mariinsky Theatre” cost about the same. Operas and matinees tend to be at least 50% cheaper, and for events in the concert hall you pay about two thirds less. You can find all venues along with an English schedule on the theatre website.
And if it’s just Swan Lake in St Petersburg you’re after…
You can buy tickets for some Swan Lake performances through a third-party website for big money… if you just put the name of the ballet into a search engine… sites will mushroom out of the web offering you tickets for 100-300EURO… just saying! Remember, for atop-notch Mikhailovsky Performance of “Swan Lake “or “The Nutcracker” you pay between 1000-5000 roubles, with only the front row tickets costing more.
Hotel recommendations in St Petersburg
You don’t want to traipse through the night after a performance. I recommend to stay in walking distance to one of the theatres. If you want to use the Metro, the Philharmonic Hall and Mikhailovsky Theatre are a 5-10 minute walk through well-lit streets to Nevsky Prospect/Gostiny Dvor Metro station, with access to two lines. There weren’t many taxis waiting outside, so if you want a taxi you can try Uber /Gett/Yandex, which all operate in St. Petersburg.
The Mariinsky Theatre is a bit off the beaten track over a kilometre away from any metro. I recommend staying nearby or using a taxi.
Hotels near the Mikhailovski Theatre and the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall
Budget/Mid-Range:Baby Lemonade Hotel and Hostel. It’s still in the Tsentralny District, this time just a short stroll from Nevsky Prospect Metro, but just off the convenient Sadovaya street with is very convenient tram line and a stop right outside the hotel. It has pop music themed modern rooms starting from about 55Euro, and hostel beds from 11Euro.
Luxury: Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is a historic 5-star hotel super central just of Nevsky Prospect, yet quietly located in a side street. The Russian Museum, Mikhailovsky Theatre and Philharmonic Hall are all less than a minute walk away. A true European “Grand Hotel Style hotel with all the chintz and marble, it would by my choice if travelling as a couple. Where else can you stay at a Grand Hotel for about 150Euro per night? Admittedly this would be in the low season, but the chintz and gold are all the same.
Hotels near the Mariinsky Theatre
The problem here is that there are far fewer hotels and much less public transport, the theatre being in a much quieter part of the town. Its a long way to the metro, but there are trams and buses around.
Budget/Mid-Range: The Meininger Hotel St Petersburg Nikolsky is in a beautiful area where three canals cross, off the tourist track, yet with a tram stop outside its doors and less than 10min walk from the theatre. It’s modern, funky and for around 30Euro for a double, unbeatable for such a funkily designed hotel, even when it’s part of a chain.
Luxury: The four-star Alexander House Boutique Hotel in an idyllic location by a canal is a 5-10minute stroll from the theatre. There are fewer cafes and restaurants than around Nevsky in this part of town, but you’ll still have a tram outside your door, and a wonderfully quiet location.
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