Review: Mariinsky Ballet - The Firebird / Marguerite and Armand / Concerto DSCH - Royal Opera House

Performance: 11 - 12 August 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 11 August 2014

Firebird - Kondaurova.

It would need a forensic examination with a very powerful microscope to find fault with this superlative performance of one of the most varied triple bills ever likely to be seen at The Royal Opera House. This has been an extraordinarily good season for the Mariinsky Ballet and it continued here with three works that successively gave a respectful nod to the history of Russian ballet; successfully exported back to London a keystone in the history of English ballet; and succinctly re-affirmed that there is at least one contemporary choreographer who already stands alongside the long-departed greats. Enveloping all of this is the fact that wherever one looked on the stage (or in the orchestra pit, for that matter) the whole evening was strung together with performances as lustrously beautiful as beaded cultured pearls of the finest quality.

The Firebird is one of the great one-act ballets from the golden age of Les Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. Made initially as a Russian export in Paris where it premiered both the then-unknown Igor Stravinsky’s emotional score and Mikhail Fokine’s libretto and choreography at the Théâtre de l’Opéra in June 1910; it finally made its way back “home” to the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, some 84 years later. It is above all else a glorious visual spectacle, achieved through Anna and Anatoly Nezhny’s reconstruction of the original set and costume designs by Alexander Golovin and Léon Bakst. In particular, the surreal collection of monstrous creatures – including an upright pair of armadillos – that comprise the retinue of the evil Kostchei fill the stage with a impressive array of colours.

The Mariinsky’s Ekaterina Kondaurova is – for me – the epitome of the Firebird but she has not come to London and the tiny, bird-like, yet very strong Anastasia Matvienko proved a worthy alternative. She jumps impressively – naturally a must in this role – and, for once, I loved her variety of expressiveness, particularly in the crucial scene where Ivan Tsarevich catches and releases her in the orchard of golden apple trees. As the Tsarevich, Andrei Yermakov has matinée-idol looks aligned to a cheeky smirk. The microscopic examination showed that some fussy aspects weren’t quite right on this first outing: Matvienko had momentary difficulty pulling out the feather to hand to her benevolent captor (a feather with which he could call for her help if ever needed) and the retinue of identical beautiful maidens (a kind of Russian fairy tale set of the Stepford wives) needed more coaching in catching apples. But, overall this was a scintillating opening, capped by the splendid performance of Stravinsky’s first great ballet score by the Mariinsky Orchestra (conducted by the charismatic Alexei Repnikov). The final section (used during the lighting of the cauldron during this year’s Winter Olympics) has an enduring emotional power that was nailed superbly.

Marguerite and Armand was made, in 1963, by Frederick Ashton for the new ballet partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and for many years after the deaths of the choreographer and both dancers, it was danced by no-one else. Lately, new casts have been allowed to take on this challenge and the Mariinsky took it into their repertoire only a month ago. For this opening London performance, Diana Vishneva melted hearts with her poignant portrayal of the deathbed remembrances of the consumptive Marguerite. Few ballerinas have been allowed to take on this role since Fonteyn (amongst them Sylvie Guillem, Svetlana Zakharova, Tamara Rojo, Nina Ananiashvili and the Mariinsky’s other premier ballerina, Uliana Lopatkina) but it suits the ardent, affecting dramatic ability of Vishneva like Cinderella’s slipper. And she looks stunning in Cecil Beaton’s gorgeous gowns (a sumptuous counterpart to the consumptive decay within the body of Marguerite).

Her Armand should have been Vladimir Shklyarov but the knock-on effect of cast changes elsewhere brought the lower-ranked Konstantin Zverev into play. This was a notable disappointment to the many Shklyarov fans in the audience but Zverev gave a noble, coltish performance that suited the dramatic relevance. Occasionally, it looked as if he were thinking about the steps rather than acting the scene but that will pass with experience.

Finally, in the last act of the fifteenth performance of this 21-show season we got to see the work of a living choreographer. For four years, Alexei Ratmansky held the hottest of seats as artistic director of the Mariinsky’s great rival company, the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow but it was the wisest of decisions for him to leave in 2008 to concentrate on his choreography, which is peerless in the modern age. And the justification for such a sweeping statement is there to be seen in Concerto DSCH, a gushing adrenalin rush of classicism that lasts just 20 minutes.

Originally made for the New York City Ballet in 2008, it came into the Mariinsky’s repertoire a year ago. DSCH stands for the German spelling of the first four letters in the name of the composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (D.Sch) whose Piano Concerto No 2 is the music used by Ratmansky. A relatively peaceful oasis of a pas de deux, tenderly danced by Viktoria Tereshkina and the returning Yermakov, is book-ended by two scintillating allegro movements, into which Ratmansky mixes a swirling, elevating, effervescent cocktail of classical and neo-classical dance. The whole entourage soars in the almost impossible task of keeping pace and maintaining uniformity, especially during the final sprint finish in 7/8 time, but the eye is always drawn to the amazing virtuoso talent of the Korean-born soloist, Kimin Kim.

Having waited two weeks for a choreographer still living, the final week in the Mariinsky’s season is dominated by Ratmansky with closure coming in three performances of his full-length Cinderella, made specifically on the Mariinsky, back in 2002.

It has been an excellent season, thus far, with the Mariinsky proving to a large degree that the company and performance expansion required by the opening of a second major theatre, last year, has not led to a shift from quality to quantity. It is remarkable to contemplate that they are still performing full-length ballets back in St Petersburg while this season is taking place in London. This is still a resolutely Russian company but it has been great to see that the two new stars to have emerged from these three weeks have been one young man from Hull (Xander Parish) and another from Seoul (Kim). It is heartening for all kinds of reasons to see the Mariinsky on such great form and now progressing through such diversity.

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Find him on Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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