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In this photo taken on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 guests take their seats for a "pre-premiere" performance, put on for veterans and senior employees of the theatre, in the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. The official opening of the new stage is scheduled for Thursday, May 2.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

They came in black tie, glittering gowns and sleek limousines. Inside there was a packed audience, Russian President Vladimir Putin and hordes of cameras recording everything for live broadcast on national television.

The opening of the Mariinsky Theatre II, a $700-million venue designed by Toronto architects that is easily among the largest ballet and opera houses in the world, was celebrated with showcase spectacle on Thursday, including a performance by tenor Placido Domingo. Two more days of opening programs are scheduled before some of the first official performances begin later this month.

It was no ordinary theatre opening.

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The Mariinsky name is a cultural icon in St. Petersburg, with Mariinsky opera dating back to 1783. There are hopes this new facility will help revive the city's claim as a global cultural capital and refurbish Russia's tarnished image in the arts world. The country is still reeling from a bizarre scandal at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow involving an acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin, and the arrest of a star dancer in connection with the attack.

"Everything is possible here," Mariinsky director Valery Gergiev told reporters before the opening ceremonies. Referring to the country's current artistic malaise, he added: "Russia is seen as a country which maybe thinks, but not always deep enough. And maybe acts, but not always in the right way. I have to say that the whole world makes big mistakes, Russia included. But the whole world makes good things, thanks God, Russia included. I swear."

Mr. Gergiev, a staunch supporter of Mr. Putin, has certainly been given every opportunity to succeed. The Russian government funded the entire project, even though costs soared from the initial estimate of around $100-million in 2003 and the project went through three sets of architects and countless delays. The government also funded construction of a new concert hall that opened seven years ago.

That type of public commitment surprised even Mr. Gergiev, who acknowledged few other governments would spend as much on an arts centre. "Even most developed countries will say 'look, stop dreaming.' Somehow we sneak in with this and the concert hall," he said.

Not everyone is happy with the new theatre. Many St. Petersburg residents and leaders in the arts community have criticized the design, saying its stark, modern exterior does not fit into the historic neighbourhood that is lined with 19th-century buildings – including some designed by Peter the Great – and a handful of churches with multicolored onion domes. Some say it looks more like a shopping mall than a theatre.

Mr. Gergiev shrugged off the naysayers, blaming the Internet and the local media for stirring up the controversy. He added that the complaints have died down now that the media and some members of the public have been let inside for tours.

Jack Diamond, whose Toronto firm, Diamond Schmitt, designed the building, also dismissed the critics. "I totally disagree," he said in an interview Thursday in St. Petersburg. "I think [the design] is its strength." He wanted the building to be muted, he added, in order to reflect the old architecture surrounding it and not draw away attention from it.

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The theatre seats 2,000 people and has so many extra music halls it can put on eight different performances at once. There's also a gigantic backstage area that includes a warehouse, workshop and several rehearsal halls. No expense was spared inside of the venue either, which features extras such as crystal balls made in Austria and honey-colored onyx stone imported from Iran lining the walkways. The interior walls of the main auditorium are lined with specially carved beech wood from Germany to improve acoustics.

Mr. Gergiev now runs a cultural complex that includes the old Mariinsky Theatre across the street, the concert hall and a music label. His domain consists of an orchestra that is close to 250-strong and a ballet company whose alumni include dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He's also head of the U.S. National Youth Orchestra, conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and will soon lead the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.

He said his annual operating budget is around $200-million annually. But finances and breaking even are not his driving concern, especially since he has government backing. "Today if … you lose a million but make a great recording, you do it," he said, adding that music is not all about making money. That approach "is actually very wrong," he said. "And it's like a virus when people always look if the money is coming from everything they touch … and many many things in the musical world are distorted because of this financial awareness."

Mr. Putin is showing every faith in Mr. Gergiev, and praised him warmly during Thursday's opening. He also made him one of the first recipients of the "Heroes of Labour" medal, a Soviet-era honour Mr. Putin has recently revived.

"We need [to] breathe life into the theatre." Mr. Putin told the audience. "We want it to live, so that people are attracted and can feel the charm of modern technology. Then it will shine in all its glory."

But even on opening day, as the sun streamed down and crowds gathered outside to gawk at the big shots going in, there was some disgruntlement. "I'm not sure, maybe 50-50," said a man named Vladimir as he stood with his family looking at the outside of the building. "That is classical," he added, pointing across the canal to the old Mariinsky Theatre, which dates to 1860. "That is modern," he said, pointing at the new theatre.

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His wife screwed up her face into a grimace and shook her head. When asked, though, if he planned to attend any operas at the new hall, Vladimir quickly nodded and added: "Of course."

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