Different People, Different Tastes.
Some years ago, I preferred seating on the back so that I could easily read the surtitles. I am now a more experienced opera-goer and lately I have been trying to avoid looking at the surtitles because it prevents me from focusing on the dramatic thread. Moreover, I trust the power of the music more than the text. Therefore, I now prefer the first few rows of the stalls. But it is entirely up to you to decide where you want to seat, keeping in mind that the majority of the seats at the old Mariinsky are bad seats. Keep reading to find all that you need to know about this topic.
Old Mariinsky vs. Mariinsky-2
The two opera houses couldn’t be more different from each other. Virtually all seats are "good" at the Mariinsky-2 whereas most seats are bad at the old stage.
Don’t Take Your Chances With Seating.
Because you will most likely end up losing. Being a reasonably tall guy, I can promise you that at least 4 out of 5 times you seat behind the first row of the stalls, you will have heads significantly obstructing your view at the Old Mariinsky. Be reasonable—the Mariinsky is not that expensive after all and you will very easily get into terrible seats if you’re not willing to invest some 3,200 rubles. Also, buy your tickets on time because most performances will practically sell out (I didn’t believe it at first but it is true) and you don’t want to end up buying overpriced tickets from a reseller. (Learn more on the Buying Tickets for The Mariinsky post.)
Avoid Seating on the Back.
In all cases, avoid the back rows because they are far away from the stage and it is very likely that you will get heads in front of you; also, there may be a photographer making noise next to you. Check my Sad Stories below.
My Personal Choices if I Were You.
1) At the Old House. If you are a tourist (unless you have a Russian student ID), you will have to pay a full price ticket. That means that the first 15 rows or so in the stalls have the same price. My advice is to sit on the first row so that you at least won’t have to deal with the heads for sure. Unless you’re watching maestro Gergiev or Pavel Smelkov, I cannot promise that the conductor won’t be noisy. Bear in mind that you will have heads virtually everywhere in the stalls except for the first row. You will even have heads in the central boxes, 1st row, parterre level. If you're going for the ballet, the first row of any balcony, near but not contiguous to the Tsar's Box, will be a good choice.
2) At the Mariinsky-2. The answer is easy. All seats are good but my personal favorites are rows 4-6 in the Stalls, dead center. You can also give a shot to the dress circle, row 1. The acoustics are great in the back of the auditorium. Productions that don’t require a huge orchestra will have additional rows (A, B/Б and C). I wouldn’t sit there if I were you because you will have to deal with heads in front of you. (Check the section About Surtitles below.)
Forget about surtitles unless you’re watching a Russian opera. All non-Russian operas will be surtitled in Russian only. As a rule of thumb, don’t seat in front of row 4 at the Mariinsky-2 if you care about the surtitles; the first row will do fine at the old stage.
The Tsar’s Box.
Sitting on the Tsar’s Box is considered a must-do by many online advisors. Personally, I think it is an overrated experience and I don’t advise it because (1) it is expensive, (2) seats of equivalent quality are available at lower rates and (3) I have several sad stories about sitting on the Tsar’s Box. Check Sad Story #1 below and the post on The Audience at The Mariinsky for another. I would advise you to just ask the lady at the entrance of the Tsar’s Box to let you take a sneak peek during the interval; I have seen many people doing this and the ushers will usually let you in.
But if you insist on sitting there, here’s what you need to know. First, the Tsar’s Box is always reserved until a few days or a couple of weeks before the performance, should a diplomatic commission want to sit there. Sometimes availability will be shown online; other times you will have to ask directly in a ticket office. Ticket offices are at the opera houses and in most places reading Касса or КACCA in the main streets. Also, don’t seat on the Tsar’s Box unless it is on the first row. You will understand why when you see it.
If you are on a tight budget, here is a secret about the Old Mariinsky. The best seats in the cost-quality category are in the 3rd row (yes, 3rd; not 2nd) of the first few central Stalls Boxes. You will save about 30%. The seats are not too comfortable but they have NO heads. You may have to deal with a chandelier though. At the Mariinsky-2, any seat will be fine if it matches your budget. Thank me later.
Why You Don’t Want to Be Late.
Unless you have that typical Russian skill called, hem, bribing, you will have to sit in the balcony if you’re late. (Paying "facilitation fees" is possible and I have heard of people who did it several times). It can be an interesting experience if it is at the Mariinsky-2, which has awesome acoustics up there. However, sitting in the 19th-century wooden benches with people making all sorts of noise and more latecomers coming in at the Old Mariinsky, with restricted view, you can take it from me—you don’t want to be late.
Extended Advice on Seating.
There are some seats that look better than they actually are. I have marked some of them in red on the map, meaning that I would never seat there again. The green seats are the recommended ones. The seats that I haven't assigned to a color: either I have never tried them or just would not risk sitting there if I were you.
For tips on buying tickets, using the Internet platform and resellers, please check my post about it by this link.
Read my Sad Stories
Sad Stories: The Tsar’s Box #1
The opera was Mazeppa. During Act 1, I was sitting in the stalls behind a gigantic man who wouldn’t stop taking pictures and wouldn’t get down on his chair. I was given no choice but buying a ticket for the Tsar’s Box, where I sat throughout the rest of the performance. Up there, the view and the acoustics were amazing but I still had to cope with the guy down in the stalls, who kept taking flash pictures throughout the performance. And so did many others. Unfortunately, it is a genetic behavior among Russian audiences. Learn more in The Audience at the Mariinsky post. So here’s the Tsar’s Box and why I advise against seating there: every time someone takes a picture it will drive away your focus on the performance.
More Sad Stories: The Back Rows.
I was late for buying tickets several times. One of those was for the première of the new production of The Barber of Seville. I bought seats for one of the last few rows of the stalls (parterre) at the Mariinsky-2. There was a photographer on the aisle who kept taking pictures with a very conspicuous “click!”. It was terribly boring and happened in all other performances when I sat on the back as well. I learned my lesson and didn’t seat on the back more than three times in about 30 operas.