While we were in London, we caught two performances of the Mariinsky Ballet at The Royal Opera House.
On Monday night, August 8, we attended a performance of “Swan Lake”. On Saturday night, August 13, we attended a performance of “La Bayadere”.
My parents and Josh and I last saw the Mariinsky in February of last year, when we had traveled to Washington for a very long weekend—a weekend in which we had caught the Mariinsky Ballet at the very end of a Washington run of performances and the Bolshoi Ballet at the very beginning of a Washington run of performances. That weekend, we had seen the Mariinsky dance “The Sleeping Beauty”.
The Mariinsky “Sleeping Beauty” presented in Washington last year was a Soviet-era production first staged by Konstantin Sergeyev in 1952. The production was peculiar: it failed to follow the scenario; it cut Tchaikovsky’s score to shreds; and the production design was abundantly unattractive. The Sergeyev “Sleeping Beauty” has—incomprehensibly—remained in the Mariinsky repertory ever since it was first mounted fifty-nine years ago (with a short-term exception to be noted below).
The Mariinksy “Swan Lake” we saw in London last week also was a Soviet-era production, dating from 1950—and it, too, had been first staged by Sergeyev. The Sergeyev “Swan Lake” has been in the Mariinsky repertory for sixty-one years.
To Westerners, it seems odd that the Mariinsky continues to present productions unveiled under Stalin. However, the Sergeyev productions, never acclaimed in the West, are unaccountably popular within Russia. Over time, Russian audiences became accustomed to the corrupt Sergeyev versions of various 19th-Century works—with the result that the Sergeyev productions now retain a tenacious hold on Russian affections. Mariinsky administrators that have attempted to replace the Soviet-era productions have been thwarted time and again. A few years ago, the Sergeyev “Sleeping Beauty” was at last retired with great fanfare, and a new production installed. The new production, appreciated in the West but disliked by Russian dancegoers, was quickly shelved, and the Sergeyev production swiftly reinstated, an inconceivable development in the eyes of those in the West.
Like the Mariinsky “Sleeping Beauty”, the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” also used a corrupt score and a corrupt scenario (as well as suffered from exceedingly unattractive designs)—and, much like the Mariinsky “Sleeping Beauty”, the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” has never been respected in the West.
The Mariinsky “Swan Lake” is the infamous “happy ending” Swan Lake, in which Von Rothbart is stripped of his wings and killed while Odette and Siegfried are allowed to live on. The production displays a pronounced fondness for jesters, prancing courtiers and other extraneous nonsense—yet the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” is nowhere near as bad (or as garish) as the Mariinsky “Sleeping Beauty”. If one can ignore the jesters and happy ending (as well as the mangled version of Tchaikovsky’s score), the Mariinsky “Swan Lake” was highly enjoyable, even magnificent.
It was magnificent because of the dancing.
The corps de ballet of the Mariinsky is of an amazing standard, a standard no other company can hope to match. It is the amazing flexibility of the backs of Mariinsky dancers that always first captures my attention. The ballerinas stretch and bend their backs with a suppleness and uniformity and subtlety of expression that are unknown to dancers in the West—and such qualities lend the ensemble work a magical power.
The arms and necks and upper-body carriage of Mariinsky dancers are astonishing; refinement and uniformity are always on display. Watching the Mariinsky corps de ballet execute its steps is, for me, always the highlight of a Mariinsky performance—and the corps was indeed wondrous in Acts II and IV of “Swan Lake”.
The Odette/Odile was Ekaterina Kondaurova and the Siegfried was American David Hallberg, making a guest appearance with the Mariinsky.
Casting for the August 8 “Swan Lake” had been changed twice after we had purchased our tickets from The Royal Opera House website. We were in no way disappointed, even though we had been promised first Diana Vishneva and then Uliana Lopatkina, the Mariinsky’s two most-renowned ballerinas (the performance had become sold out while Vishneva’s name still appeared on the casting list). Days before the Mariinsky dancers landed in London, Kondaurova was announced as the Odette/Odile for the performance of August 8.
Kondaurova was an excellent Odette/Odile. Better in the lakeside acts than in Act III, where her Odile struck me as brittle and unnatural (and perhaps a bit forced), Kondaurova is a major ballerina. Kondaurova should be better-known in the West—she is a dancer of astonishing technique yet capable of expressing drama and emotion as well as evoking heartbreak. Kondaurova is a far finer dancer than any principal I have encountered over the last dozen years at American Ballet Theatre or at The Royal Ballet or at The Paris Opera Ballet. The depth of Russian ballet talent is limitless.
Hallberg did not give a memorable performance. His characterization of Siegfried struck me as faceless, lacking in princely profile, lacking in personality and lacking in charm. Kondaurova totally overwhelmed Hallberg whenever both dancers were onstage at the same time. Their partnership was a steak-and-mutton pairing.
In fairness, I must note that Hallberg had the unpleasant assignment of trying to lend some semblance of life to Act I, by far the weakest act of the Mariinsky production.
The Mariinsky orchestra had been imported from Saint Petersburg for the duration of the three-week London engagement. The orchestra was off-form in “Swan Lake”—and the tempi were far too slow, as is generally the case in Mariinsky performances.
Acts I and II were performed without an intermission, yet there was an intermission between Acts III and IV. In my view, “Swan Lake” must be performed either with three intermissions or with one intermission: there must be an intermission after each act; or there must be a single intermission after Act II, with each palace act seamlessly followed by a lakeside act. Offering “Swan Lake” with two intermissions makes no sense whatsoever—and this is especially so since Act IV is the shortest of the four acts, lasting only twenty minutes.
Despite the shortcomings, we loved every minute of the Mariinsky “Swan Lake”. It was a privilege to see such a great ballet company in one of the 19th Century’s seminal works of Classicism.
The performance of “La Bayadere” we attended five nights later involved an even older Soviet-era production, a “Bayadere” production dating from 1941 (the year Hitler invaded Russia).
My parents and Josh and I had attended a performance of “La Bayadere” in November, when we had seen the Boston Ballet production, a production largely derived from Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris Opera Ballet staging (but with different stage designs).
When I wrote about Boston Ballet’s “La Bayadere”, I wrote at some length about the two different versions of “La Bayadere” most frequently encountered in the West: Natalia Makarova’s 1980 production for New York-based American Ballet Theatre; and Nureyev’s 1992 production for Paris.
At the time, I also mentioned the 2001 Mariinsky production, a production reconstructed from the 1900 Marius Petipa staging. The Mariinsky “La Bayadere” of 1900 was the final production of Petipa’s 1877 original that the choreographer supervised during his lifetime. The 2001 Mariinsky reconstruction had been based upon dance notation from the 1900 production as well as Ludwig Minkus’s original score and orchestrations, unearthed in 2000 in the Mariinsky library.
The 2001 Mariinsky reconstruction of the 1900 Petipa production had proved to be a sensation in the West (it was first shown in New York and London in 2003, and caused critics to revise wholesale their opinions of the ballet)—and I had always assumed that the Mariinsky had permanently abandoned the corrupt 1941 production once it had mounted the 2001 reconstruction of Petipa’s final staging.
I had been wrong. The Mariinsky reverted to the corrupt 1941 production of “La Bayadere” in 2004 (“except for special occasions”, according to the Mariinsky program booklet), and has danced the corrupt 1941 version ever since. The pristine “Bayadere” unveiled in 2001 did not prove to be popular in Russia, where audiences had become so accustomed to the corrupt 1941 version that they had demanded its return.
We had eagerly looked forward to the 2001 Mariinsky reconstruction—and we were disappointed that the old Soviet version was being offered in its place. We discovered what we had gotten ourselves into long before leaving for London—but long after we had already purchased our tickets. We would never have purchased tickets—very expensive tickets—for “La Bayadere” had we known that the 1941 Soviet-era production was the production scheduled for London.
The 1941 production uses a specious score, much not from Minkus’s pen (and with completely different orchestrations, all created by a variety of anonymous hands), and it omits all of Act IV and portions of Acts I through III. The 1941 production ends—as did the Boston Ballet production—with “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene, robbing the ballet of any sensible dramatic conclusion (but providing a ridiculous if not ludicrous happy ending, first introduced in 1924 under pressure from the Lenin regime, which favored “happy endings” in entertainments for “the masses”).
I cannot understand the Mariinsky’s perpetuation of corrupt Soviet-era stagings. Ballets warranting revival should be presented after thorough research of the most pristine source materials, and with original scores emanating from the pit. (The Mariinsky’s Soviet-era productions are also in dire need of re-costuming.) Ballet stagings in Russia should no longer be based upon the type of production Stalin found pleasing.
The dancing provided the only pleasure to be derived from the current Mariinsky “La Bayadere”—and the dancing was undeniably glorious.
The corps was in stunning form all night—and not solely in “The Kingdom Of The Shades” scene, which came across with stupendous impact (32 ballerinas were used, as in Nureyev’s Paris production, unlike the 24 ballerinas used in the Boston production and Makarova’s ABT production). Even in the brief formal dances of Acts I and II, the Mariinsky corps was incomparable.
Two of the three principal dancers were excellent—and, unlike “Swan Lake”, with its two changes of casting, there had been only one change of casting for “La Bayadere” after we had purchased our tickets.
We had ordered tickets for what purportedly was to be a Vishneva performance. Two days after our order had been placed, the performance was listed as “sold out”—and, two days after that, Vishneva’s name was removed from the cast listing.
We heard countless complaints from patrons of The Royal Opera House about the casting shenanigans connected to the Mariinsky’s visit to London. As soon as performances with the Mariinsky’s biggest stars became sold out, those very same stars were shifted to performances for which sales had been weakest. No one knows whether the perpetrator of this nasty scheme was the Mariinsky itself, The Royal Opera House or Victor Hochhauser, the impresario presenting the London engagement.
Happily, we were able to experience Lopatkina if not Vishneva, because Lopatkina danced Nikiya at the August 13 “La Bayadere” performance—and she was magnificent.
Lopatkina is a spectacular ballerina—one cannot take one’s eyes from her while she is onstage—and the kind of dancer one rarely encounters in the West: blazing technique, glamorous stage presence, deep musicality, surefire dramatic instinct, vivid yet natural projection, charisma to burn. With the slightest tilt of the head, Lopatkina could evoke the kind of stage tension normally associated with Hamlet’s soliloquy or Otello’s “Credo”. I would go see Lopatkina nightly if she danced in Minneapolis. She is one of the greatest dancers I have ever seen.
The Solor was Daniel Korsuntsev. Korsuntsev was quite good in what is, all in all, a rather thankless role. Korsuntsev possessed some stage presence and exhibited the virtuosity dancegoers have come to expect from Russian male dancers. However, Korsuntsev did not strike me as a particularly thoughtful or subtle or polished artist.
Anastasia Kolegova danced Gamzatti—and she was a cipher on the stage alongside Lopatkina and Korsuntsev. Kolegova basically got lost amid the onstage proceedings—but it did not matter, because Lopatkina was so riveting.
Before the performances, I had worried about my brother attending two evening-length ballet performances within five days. My brother, like practically everyone, enjoys “Swan Lake”, but I was uncertain whether he would be able to tolerate “La Bayadere”.
My brother made it through both evenings without stress—and it was two long evenings we endured: the performance of “Swan Lake” lasted three hours and ten minutes; and the performance of “La Bayadere” lasted three hours and fifteen minutes.
My brother enjoyed “Swan Lake” immensely (other than its gruesome first act). He thought “La Bayadere” was rather silly—which of course it is—but he enjoyed watching Lopatkina and the corps. He did not regret the time spent in The Royal Opera House.
London press reviews of the Mariinsky’s three-week visit to The Royal Opera House were shockingly provincial. Other than Clement Crisp writing for The Financial Times, we did not encounter a single critical notice, in any of the London newspapers, covering any of the six programs the Mariinsky toured to London, that exhibited even the slightest sophistication. The reviews were public exhibitions of extravagant ignorance, both about the Mariinsky and about the art form itself.