Famous as Russia’s Window on the West, in summer St Petersburg is renowned for being light, even at night. A remarkable phenomenon that’s attributable to its high altitude and location on the same latitude as Oslo, locals and visitors from all over the world celebrate the season’s sleepless days with an annual arts festival called the White Nights (Beliye Nochi).
While the first thing that springs to mind when Russia is mentioned might be big fur hats, snow-brushed onion domes and frosty pines, St Petersburg in summer defies all the wintry clichés with a rather balmy climate, due to its position just off the Gulf of Finland. Full of opulent palaces, cocktail parties and fireworks displays, at the centre of the White Nights lies a programme that includes all the art, music, opera, ballet and film one could possibly handle.
Kicking off festivities is the Stars of the White Nights performance. Always held at the Mariinsky theatre and often sold out weeks, even months, in advance, this mixture of world-class ballet (dancers like Ulyana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva have performed here) and opera sets the scene for the Peterhof Palace show. Also popular are the Peterhof period-costumed actors, who re-enact some of Russia’s most important historical episodes, drawing big crowds in the process.
2017 promises to win acclaim with a Stars of the White Nights programme that features over 160 shows. These include the premiere of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur (featuring Anna Netrebco), the St Petersburg premiere of the Chess King opera by Alexander Tchaikovsky as well as performances dedicated to the anniversaries of Igor Stravinsky and Radion Shchedrin.
First conceived by Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre’s Artistic and General Director, in 1993, the Stars of the White Nights is intended to be a “musical gift” to St Petersburg from one of its favourite venues. Home of Russian ballet and opera since the mid-19th century, visiting the Mariinsky (with its glitzy chandeliers, putti and miles of gold-leaf), would be a treat on any occasion, but it is especially so during the city’s biggest festival – now in its 25th year.
Never-ending days also mean endless supplies of ice-cream and watermelon at pop-up stalls all over St Petersburg. So, when all the ballet, opera and zhizni radost (Russia’s joie de vivre) has left one exhausted, refuel on pierogi or fresh breads at the hole-in-the-wall cafés, or perhaps wander down to the beach, where revellers often build barbecues laden with scrumptious shashlik (shish kebab) or bitok (Russian schnitzel). Just don’t be surprised if anybody offers to put jam in your tea – they’re not confused, it’s a Russian tradition!
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.