Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pique Dame Triple Bill: Bolshoi Ballet @ Royal Opera House, London

14 August 2006

Pique Dame

Pique Dame (Photo: Damir Yusupov)

The Bolshoi Ballet’s London season is rapidly staking its claim to be the highlight of the cultural year so far. Even if Cinderella and Swan Lake have garnered mixed reviews, who could resist the gleeful nonsense of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, the wacky comedy of The Bright Stream or, here, the diversity of the Triple Bill? Monday’s programme consisted of two UK premieres – Ratmansky’s Go For Broke and Petit’s Pique Dame – accompanying Balanchine’s Symphony in C.

If choosing the ever-popular Symphony in C to end the programme seemed a bit too much of a safe choice on the Bolshoi’s part, then their choice of opener was much the opposite. Go For Broke was composed for the birthday of Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya, and is a surprisingly small-scale work. It is set to a vivacious but untypical score by Stravinsky, sounding a little too tame here under the baton of Pavel Klinichev, and with Alexei Ratmansky‘s direction it requires only 15 dancers.

The choreography is the best thing in the ballet, which was premiered in Moscow last year, with its mix of traditional and modern more than responding to the urgent neoclassicism of the music. On Monday, the Bolshoi’s principals and soloists produced some occasionally spontaneous and lively movement, although the odd coordination issue suggested that another rehearsal is needed. Meanwhile the minimalist set, though sensibly lit by Damir Ismagilov, did not overwhelm.

Much better was Pique Dame, a reworking of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, with choreography by Roland Petit. The story concerns a man, Hermann, searching not for the meaning of life but rather the winning cards to a poker game! In his search he encounters a demonic Countess, a young girl, and plenty of waltzing ballroom dancers.

The faded stage dressings and murky lighting give the work an elegiac and gloomy air, while the use of colour is understated and imaginative. A ballroom (or the poker hall – the two are indistinguishable here) is costumed and lit in greys, blacks and creams. Hermann enters bathed in pink light, while the Countess’s arrival prompts a sudden switch to purple. In the final scene, perhaps not surprisingly, the set has turned blood red.

Against this backdrop, three brilliant soloists played out an absorbing drama. The production was partly created for principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and his movement was stunning throughout. His huge stage presence and more than convincing acting formed a large part of his achievement on this opening night, and he characterised Hermann’s confusion with both brashness and subtlety. Ilze Liepa‘s Countess was a force to be reckoned with – her body contorted into vile, grotesque shapes with ease – and her violent, sexually explicit duets with Tsiskaridze were the highlights of the performance. Svetlana Lunkina in her small part as a Young Girl danced with customary purity and grace.

Then we came to Bizet’s Symphony in C Major, a piece written in 1855 when the composer was only 17, and here choreographed by George Balanchine. It is an insignificant little thing – each of the four movements has a theme and is danced by different soloists and a different corps. It is also a tremendous lot of fun, and we were treated to a staggering selection of dancers. Notable were Denis Matvienko and Maria Alexandrova, who shimmered their way through a tremendous performance of the Third Movement. Previously, Svetlana Zakharova in the Second Movement had danced with lyricism, if occasional unsteadiness. The finale, with what must be approaching 50 dancers onstage, is ravishing, and the Bolshoi did it as well as one would expect.

So the choice of items lacked continuity, but the latter two especially were performed with expertise. The orchestra seemed muted in many of Pique Dame‘s lyrical passages, but by the Bizet it had warmed up, with each movement intelligently phrased and played with commitment. So a generally excellent evening, even if the performance overran by half an hour.

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More on Bolshoi Ballet
Pique Dame Triple Bill: Bolshoi Ballet @ Royal Opera House, London
The Bright Stream: Bolshoi Ballet @ Royal Opera House, London
The Pharaoh’s Daughter: Bolshoi Ballet @ Royal Opera House, London