Perhaps one of Europe’s most intriguing festivals, at first sight at least, is the exotically named Stars of the White Nights Festival in the stunning Russian city of St. Petersburg. Originally lasting just ten days, the Stars of the White Nights is now a three month season for classical music, ballet and opera lovers, taking its name from that short time of the year in this part of the world when the sun never sets. From May through to the end of July, the Mariinsky Theatre, the Philharmonic Hall and the magnificent Mariinsky Concert Hall – only opened in 2007 – host concerts on a par with any that can be found throughout the world.
The Stars of the White Nights was the brainchild of the very first mayor of St. Petersburg and brought to fruition by the Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev – a position he still holds. From its beginnings in 1993, the festival has been regarded as a ‘musical gift’ to the people of St. Petersburg and has attempted to attract the world’s leading performers, producing some of the world’s musical masterpieces. Artists from Russia and other countries now feature in more than one hundred separate concerts during the festival – which continues to attract names such as Placido Domingo, Bryn Terfel, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Hampson and Maria Guleghina to perform here.
The festival has always been ambitious in its programming as well as with the quality of its artists. New premiers and contemporary pieces are commonly included as well as the most celebrated symphonic compositions. There have also been stagings of, for example, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the complete symphonies of both Mahler and Shostakovich.
As comprehensive as the musical programme of the Stars of the White Nights is, however, it still does not tell all of the story. A number of spectacular carnivals also takes place during the festival – the best-known of which are held in the suburbs of Peterhof, Pavlovsk and at the Catherine Palace, the former summer residence of the tsars of Russia. These are costumed extravaganzas in which you’ll see sumptuous period horse-drawn carriages and dramatic re-enactments of the city’s history.
The Stars of the White Nights festival celebrations finish with what the Russians know as Alye Parusa, or Scarlet Sails. More than a million people will be on the streets and the banks of the St Petersburg river, the Neva, to witness what was once simply an end of the the school year celebration party. Based on a favourite novel by the Russian novelist Alexander Grin, the centrepiece of the event is a tall ship with the famous scarlet sails coming in towards the Winter Palace. Additionally, though, there will be motorboat and rowing races on the river and spectacular pirate battles.
St. Petersburg – or ‘the Venice of the North’ or ‘the City of 101 Islands’, take your pick – is the world’s most northern city of more than one million people. With well over 200 museums and some imposing architecture, it has become a popular tourist destination – with increasing numbers of cruise liners choosing the port as a destination. However, it is also a very modern city in its outlook – it is only 300 years old so is, in fact, literally very young for a European city. With a lively student population and good nightlife, it attracts visitors of all ages and outlooks from across the world.
With this in mind, accommodation is now plentiful in the city – ranging from some incredible luxury hotels such as the Astoria, the Grand Hotel Europe and the Radisson Royal Hotel as well as many budget hotels and self-catering accommodation.
The Stars of the White Nights Festival represents a wonderful opportunity of visiting a city that is almost a stage set in its own right. Of then attending some world class musical concerts and leaving the concert hall at midnight and walking home in the daylight! There is an extremely high demand for tickets for nearly all of the performances, so those wishing to attend need to keep a careful eye on the Marinsky Theatre website which will give details of all the programme and how to obtain tickets.