The classical performing arts are one of the biggest draws to St Petersburg. Highly acclaimed professional artists stage productions in elegant theatres around the city, many of which have been recently revamped and look marvellous. Seeing a Russian opera, ballet or classical-music performance in a magnificent baroque theatre is a highlight of any trip.
Ballet & Opera
The beautiful and historic Mariinsky, now with a separate second modern stage and marvellous concert hall, is understandably every visitor’s first choice for entertainment. However, if you can't get a ticket, there’s no shortage of ballet and opera in other illustrious St Petersburg theatres: try the Mikhailovsky, the Alexandrinsky, the Hermitage Theatre and the St Petersburg Opera. The key is to ask locally for recommendations, as most educated Petersburgers can give you an idea of which productions are worth buying tickets for. Critics complain that the Russian renditions of well-known Western works often seem naive and overstylised, so steer clear of Mozart. Far more likely to be good are productions of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov or Shostakovich, all regulars on the playbills at most theatres.
Orchestral music is taken very seriously in St Petersburg, and unsurprisingly so, as most of the Russian genre originated here. The Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory is the beating heart of the classical-music scene, and host concerts given by its students in both its Bolshoy Zal (Big Hall) and Maly Zal (Little Hall). Quality is superb and can be matched only by that at the Shostakovich Philharmonia, under the baton of maestro Yury Temirkanov, where concerts are given in two concert halls with the same names as those at the Conservatory.
St Petersburg has long played a central role in Russia's movie-making industry and there are several historic cinemas in town as well as more modern art-house venues and multiplexes. It's possible to see films in their original-language versions and during the summer months attend outdoor screenings on the city's rooftops organised by Roof Cinema, which hosts shows at Mod Club and the New Stage in the Historic Centre and Hotel Vedensky and Hi-Hat on the Petrograd Side.
Need to Know
By far the easiest way to buy tickets is online through a performance venue's own website; do this well in advance to make sure you get seats for shows you want to see when you’re in St Petersburg. Outside of the busy White Nights season last-minute tickets are generally easy to find. The standard way to buy tickets on the ground is from a theatre kiosk (театральная касса); these kiosks can be found all over the city, or you can also buy them in person from the individual theatre box offices.
- Ballet and opera: A minimum of R600 for restricted views in ‘the gods’ (the upper balconies) and an average of R3000. The best seats go for R6000.
- Classical concerts: Around R500 to R3000, but higher for prestigious venues such as the Mariinsky Concert Hall.
- Theatre tickets: R200 to R2000.
Performances generally begin at 7pm or 7.30pm. Arrive in good time to absorb the atmosphere. (Be late and you'll face the wrath of the fearsome babushkas!) As locals live for socialising in the intervals, bars are packed at these times – and there's always at least one interval, sometimes two, per performance.
Definitely dress up for the ballet, opera or theatre. Russians are dolled up to the nines on these occasions and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you aren’t.
Opera at the Mariinsky often has English surtitles, as do some plays at Maly Drama Theatre.