Review: Mariinsky Ballet in Anna Karenina at Royal Opera House

Performance: 9 & 10 August 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 10 August 2011

Mariinsky Ballet 'Anna Karenina' Dancers: Uliana Lopatkina, Yuri Smekalov. Photo: Natasha Razina

Reviewed: 9 August 2011

Though scheduled for just two performances, Alexei Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated work in the Mariinsky’s programme for this three week summer season. This may have been due to the quintessential Russianness of Tolstoy’s novel – in comparison to the interpretations of Don Quixote’s Spain, the India of La Bayadère, Balanchine’s romanticised ideal of a Scotch Symphony and even the unspecified mid-European Lakeland inhabited by swans. Then of course there was the fact that this performance was a UK first.

There are other balletic versions of Anna Karenina, notably Maya Plisetskaya’s first venture into choreography (1972), inspired perhaps by her earlier film role as Princess Shcherbatskaya and more certainly by Rodion Shchedrin’s score (Shchedrin and Plisetskaya have been married since 1958) – and another interpretation, by Boris Eifman, was premiered in St Petersburg in 2005 (choreographed to a patchwork score by Tchaikovsky). Ratmansky has stuck to Shchedrin’s dramatic and ultra-descriptive composition, which spreads out with precise accents exactly as a film score might develop, and he has been influenced by Plisetskaya’s legacy in a ballet that he first made for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2004, before revisiting it on the Mariinsky last year.

Although it’s not War and Peace, Tolstoy’s “other” novel is still packed with incident and a large roster of characters, 25 of whom find their way into the ballet. Translating Tolstoy’s complex narrative into a dramaturgical concept which works only in the language of dance and gesture was a problem not adequately solved. Characters wander on and off stage with such remarkable frequency in scenes that speed by like flicker-cards (I wasn’t counting but I’d be surprised if there were less than 20 distinct scenes in this 85-minute ballet). Amongst this ever-changing scenery, I had no idea – beyond a few central figures – who was whom. In the gathered throngs of Act I, two invariably outstanding dancers (Yevgenia Obraztsova and Sofia Gumerova) were present as two named Princesses but I had a job to pick them out and an even harder task to work out the purpose and effect of their roles. Anyone not having recently read the novel or the incredibly detailed programme synopsis (which still managed to omit an entire scene) would, I fear, have been lost other than perhaps understanding that Anna had a son, a husband and a lover; she was ill, recovered and then killed herself (in one of the most abrupt endings in ballet). There were some attempts to simplify matters such that Vronsky’s offstage injury in a horse race is represented by the horrific grainy film of a poor creature somersaulting over a fence. The excellent costume and set designs by Mikael Melbye and the constantly moving video graphics of Wendall Harrington (depicting everything from the grandeur of Karenin’s Library, through cloud, snow and forest, to the Lido of Venice and on to the giant looming image of the train about to take Anna to her maker) often seemed so dominant that the movement and gesture was lost, and the film’s impact was severely restricted to those seated in the upper levels and standing in the stalls circle. After the performance, people with tickets in these areas told me that they hadn’t seen key elements of the film and were thus even more perplexed by the detail. The best of the set design was, however, seen by all, and this was the iconic and very effective train carriage with steam spouting from its undercarriage, which moved effortlessly around the stage, turning around to show the action in its interior.

I have learned over many years that Ratmansky’s choreography generally improves with subsequent viewings and this seems likely to be the case here. He cleverly allocates descriptive movement motifs and phrasings to each main character and event but I suspect that not all was apparent the first time around. Two particular thoughts struck me: firstly the MacMillan influence was very strong (with obvious flavours of Winter Dreams, Anastasia and even Manon) especially in the partnered work; and secondly, the choreography seemed only to escape from the burden of the cluttered narrative to become more indelible in the later scenes of the second act.

The best of the excellence came in Diana Vishneva’s outstanding portrayal of Anna. I was not fortunate enough to see Plisetskaya’s interpretation (other than on film) but Vishneva has the mature dance-actress capability of reaching the extremities of the theatre (one might say the parts that the film didn’t get to) with an unbridled passion and emotion; and she presents the troubled aristocratic beauty of the title role with considerable dignity and strength. Her scenes with the lover (Vronsky, played by Yuri Smekalov) and son (Seryozha, played by Roman Surkov) were particular highlights only equalled by a thoughtful, touching performance from Islom Baimuradov as her cuckolded husband, Karenin.

I wanted so much to like Anna Karenina and there is much to like, but the overall impact is of a ballet that is weakened by the over-burdening sum of its parts.

The Mariinsky season continues at the Royal Opera House until 13 August **”“:

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