By Alexei Anishchuk and Liza Dobkina
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Enlisting the drama of Prokofiev and the elegance of Tchaikovsky, St Petersburg's new Mariinsky theatre staged a gala opening on Thursday designed to silence critics of the starkly modernist building erected in the heart of Russia's imperial capital.
The $700-million glass and limestone building, which critics have dubbed the "Mariinsky mall", glowed in the night sky, its glass and metal walkways humming with excited voices as the select crowd of 2,000 found their seats.
Just opposite, across a canal, the 19th century original opera house, one of the great showcases of Russian culture which became home to the Kirov opera and ballet companies in Soviet times, stood silent for the evening.
"We need breathe life into the theatre. 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," President Vladimir Putin told the guests, who included leading Russian businessmen.
Calling the Mariinsky by its affectionate short name Mariinka, Putin said the theatre had always preserved the best traditions of the Russian arts, never losing "its shine".
"Seven hundred and sixty performances a year! And each one is world class. No artistic team in the world does that."
Putin praised Valery Gergiev, director of the Mariinsky and regarded by many as the greatest living orchestral conductor, for pursuing a project that had been conceived just before Russia's financial crash of 1998.
"In 2003, Gergiev raised the issue again and a new project arose," Putin said, referring to a decision made after he became president in 2000.
The Mariinsky II is one of several grand projects sponsored by Putin intended to show what Russia can achieve, most notably the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Gergiev, whose 60th birthday coincided with the gala, had been criticized for commissioning a sleek, modern building which some say sits awkwardly among its pastel colored 19th-century neighbors.
But in the end only two people protested outside. One of them, a woman, held a banner mocking Gergiev's recent "Hero of Labour" award received from Putin on Wednesday, suggesting the conductor should either pull down the building or hand back the medal.
The conductor, a loyal ally of Putin, had shrugged off the criticism, saying the Mariinsky needed a new stage and state-of-the-art technology to produce the kind of theatre people expected to see today.
"People asked why do we need new architecture? Why does St Petersburg need a new opera house? I think the best way to answer those questions is simply to let people come in," he told a news conference.
Many guests were impressed. Light bounced off wall panels made of Italian onyx that stretch several storeys high and the sound was excellent.
"I like the theatre and I liked the concert. It's a contemporary theatre with great potential," said former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. "I love theatres and have been in many great theatres in different corners of the world. I think it is worthy of becoming one of them."
The simple light wood of the balconies and aisles was a world away from the original Mariinsky Theatre, which was sumptuously decorated in gold and red. Only the VIP box in the Mariinsky II has a slight nod to extravagance - a modern chandelier to make prominent guests feel at home.
The gala opened with a dramatic excerpt from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet and included the coronation scene from Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, when the vast stage swarmed with peasants.
Ulyana Lopatkina and Viktor Baranov danced "Pavlova and Cecchetti" to Tchaikovsky and Placido Domingo sang a Wagner aria in front of an audience including Putin allies Alisher Usmanov, Russia's richest man, and railways chief Vladimir Yakunin.
(Writing by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)