Forget Russia! If you want good ballet head to Astana...
The dancers from La Scala leap to choreography by the late Rudolf Nureyev; the orchestra plays; the sets on the vast stage transform as dramatically as if they were 3D projections. Leaning over the rococo-style, curvaceous red and gold balconies, the audience is as rapt as it is bejewelled. During the interval, over glasses of prosecco in the reception area, ladies in Valentino heels and Fendi dresses and men in Rubinacci suits discuss the merits of the performance. Afterwards, I am taken by my friends to an al fresco dinner at a nearby roof terrace restaurant; they indulge me in a bottle of 2007 Lupicaia, one of my favourite Italian wines, with its wild, animal, earthy punch.
It sounds like we should be in Milan, the home of La Scala, but actually we were several thousand miles away, geographically, and a million miles away metaphorically. The new, spectacular opera house, the third largest in the world, with state-of-the-art acoustic design, seating for 1250, three stages, and a vast backstage area as big as an aircraft hangar (to enable the creation of the most elaborate possible sets, no expense spared), is in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
On a map, Astana has no terms of reference at all for the western European: it is located on the steppe that connects Siberia with Europe, about midway between Moscow and Beijing. Its climate is Siberian: warm (and rather pleasant) right now in summer, but consistently colder than your freezer in winter. Like Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and other nations emerging onto the 21st-century map, it has been the scene of a phenomenon of cultural development, led by a government keen to make its mark on both the domestic and world stage, using culture as a tool.
However, there is a key difference in what a marketeer would call "authenticity". Abu Dhabi will soon be home to a Guggenheim and a Louvre. Doha in Qatar opened the IM-Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art in 2008, and currently holds the world's largest individual collection of contemporary art (not yet on display). But these territories, despite their swank, have little or no heritage in the arts.
Kazakhstan, unsung and unbranded so far, is by contrast an entirely legitimate place to host one of the world's big three ballet and opera houses. Some of this "authenticity" is due to its Soviet heritage: the Moscow State Ballet moved in its entirety to Almaty, the country's capital, during the second world war. Some of it, however, is home-grown; the Almaty Ballet School has been one of the three most respected in all the former Russian satellite lands for more than a century. The feted principal of what was then Leningrad's Kirov Ballet in the 1980s, Altynai Asylmuratova, was Kazakh, as were many of the dancers in the corps de ballet, then and now, of the major Russian and global companies. Kazakhstan is an independent country now; but Russia has retained the glow of its ballet fame, partly because the Kazakhs have been, to date, so poor about communicating their country's positives, unlike the PR-savvy Gulf states.
And so here we are in the capital of a country with one of the richest heritages in the world in opera and ballet: a rival to any western European nation. The opera house is grand. It has murals depicting Lake Balkash, the country's biggest lake (and a haven for big game fishermen from around the world) on one side and the Tien Shan mountains, where the Kazakhs are building a huge ski resort, on the other of its marble-clad lobby area. Astana is full of dramatic contemporary buildings (the Velodrome is shaped like a cycle helmet, the main shopping centre looks like a glass tent) but the Opera House, the newest of them all, completed just before Christmas last year, is resolutely classical. As is the performance; I am not qualified to comment on its quality, but the audience, who looked like they knew their Verdi from their Veronese, were in raptures.
The fashions sported in Astana's opera house looked as dramatically heeled as those at La Scala, and in both cities the designers are predominantly Italian: think Cavalli, Valentino and Gucci for Kazakh female opera goers, and the usual Milanese and Neapolitan tailors (Zegna, Rubinacci, Kiton) for the gents. I did meet Astana's most prominent female fashion designer: Aika Jaxybai told me how proud she was that her contemporary-edgy AA womenswear label is now sold by multibrand stores in Paris and London.
Given the challenges Abu Dhabi is facing with its new museums - well documented elsewhere - and Qatar's general current issues, you might well have reservations about visiting the derivative Guggenheim and Louvre in the Gulf in the coming years. But an opera lover spending a weekend in Astana? Now that's a thing. There are even direct flights from Heathrow. Just wrap up warm if you go for the Christmas season.