A visit to Saint Petersburg would be incomplete without seeing some good old classic art, regardless of what sort of cultural experience you prefer. After seeing the masterpieces of Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, and an extensive collection of the impressionist paintings collected by Russian industrialists, it is totally worth visiting one of the city's gorgeous theatres.
The northern capital of Russia historically played an important role in the history of ballet and opera, with some of the shows seeing full houses not only in Russia but all over the world. The repertoire goes far beyond the world-famous Swan Lake, a ballet composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in the last decade of the 19th century. If you feel interested in spending an evening in the opulent interiors of the historic theatres, here are some useful tips and recommendations you might need before visiting opera or ballet in Saint Petersburg.
How to dress
Dressing up before visiting a classical play might seem tricky, however, St. Petersburg has quite a democratic approach to the looks of its guests. Same as you may visit any of the top restaurants in the city dressed in jumper and jeans, you may prefer any of your regular outfits to a dress (or a suit jacket) when going to the main theatres.
The diversity of the looks in the theatres of St. Petersburg will surprise you just as much as the ballet itself. While some of the visitors could come all dressed up, with women wearing evening gowns and strings of pearls, the students or the office workers would wear the same outfit they did during the day. Having an all-black look always seems a good idea, though.
Where to eat
It would be nice to have a hearty meal before going to see a ballet or an opera, as the play may last up to four hours and the local buffets are quite special. In case you find yourself eager to grab a bite during the intermission, make sure you take enough cash to buy drinks and food. Normally the buffets located in the theatres do not accept credit cards.
Locals enjoy such cafes despite the fact that they are a bit overpriced, so don't be surprised when you see a long queue. The most traditional way to spend an intermission is to have a champagne glass and a sandwich with caviar. In this regard, not that much has changed since the 19th century.
There is a lifehack for Mariinskiy theatre café: you can make a pre-order before the start of the performance and you will have a table reserved for you and the order prepared in the beginning of the intermission. If you do not book in advance, you may wait in the line for the whole break. Please, note that theatre cafes accept only cash, but usually have ATMs.
What to watch
The language barrier is a great problem for those who want to enjoy the play in the country of visit. That's why it is always better to choose ballet or an opera instead of a theatre piece. When it comes to Saint Petersburg, it's always easy as all the main theatres play their performances with subtitles.
When you decide what to watch, you might find yourself a bit confused seeing the same performances in various theatres. The thing is that Mariinsky, Alexandrinsky and Mikhailovsky theatres — the main pillars of local St. Petersburg's cultural life — are constantly struggling for leadership and audience, which is why Swan Lake, for instance, can be seen in both three.
Rather than choosing a play, you might choose the theatre you want to visit instead. Mikhailovsky, founded in 1833, is located right next to the State Russian Museum. Its interiors are classy and old-fashioned, but an extensive renovation finished in 2018 makes you feel like you went back in time. Same with Alexandrinsky, whose history goes back to 1756. The decor is as posh as it was in the golden age of Russian classicism, but the recent renovation has made it even more gorgeous.
The old stage of Mariinsky, in its turn, has not been renovated for ages. Its dark hallways seem to be designed for those who want to immerse themselves into the Russian Zeitgeist. Nonetheless, the theatre has another option for the admirers of modern architecture and innovative theatre. The new stage, built just a few years ago by a Canadian architect Jack Diamond, is a nice example of how St. Petersburg is evolving and changing its historic appearance.
As for the particular plays, it might be worth seeing The Nutcracker and Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, Le Corsaire and Giselle by Adolphe Adam. In case you like modern art, try visiting The Four Seasons in Mariinsky with its stunning choreography and scenery.
How to buy a ticket
Most of the modern Russian theatres sell tickets online on their websites, each of which has an English version. You can easily switch to it by clicking "English" in the upper right corner of the page. Otherwise, the tickets can be bought directly at the theatre's booking office. Beware of the profiteers and never buy any tickets from people who claim to be working in the theatre.
In case you purchase a ticket close to the date of the performance, normally there are not many seats left. Don't be afraid of choosing the balcony seat: the view will be just perfect, and during the intermission, each visitor can easily take a walk through the stalls to make pictures.
That's it! Have fun and enjoy your visit to the world-renowned Russian ballet and its beautiful dancers. And don't forget to get your champagne and caviar.