In spite of some excellent dancing, this triple bill of Shostakovich ballets was disappointing. Sadly, the reasons for disappointment had nothing to do with dancing. In the past I have seen several Mariinsky ballet performances under Valery Gergiev’s musical direction. Those performances were exceptional, as dancers and orchestra were united by commitment and high quality. So I was very much looking forward to this evening as the publicity material promised Gergiev as conductor. However, in the event, Maestro Gergiev conducted only one of the three ballets. This was disappointment number one.
Disappointment number two concerned the lack of information about the ballets. None of the three ballets is well known in London. The programme book, covering all operas and ballets presented during this Shostakovich on Stage festival, did not even give us basic information on some of the ballets. Information on the operas was fine: we had full synopses for all the operas, and surtitles during the performances also kept us informed. On the other hand, for The Bedbug, described as a one-act comic ballet after the play of the same name by Vladimir Mayakovsky, we had a cast list of 16 characters but absolutely nothing about the plot. Having talked to several members of the audience, I am confident that I was not alone in not knowing what was going on. After the performance I obtained Mayakovsky’s Bedbug but how many of the audience will be able (or will be inclined) to get back to source?
In spite of his impressive credentials, which include a shortened stay as music director of the Welsh National Opera, conductor Tugan Sokhiev is not in the same class as Gergiev. In The Young Lady and the Hooligan (after the film scenario of the same name by Mayakovsky) he did not allow the Tschaikovsky-like score any expressive shaping and breathing. Yet the violin and oboe solos as well as the substantial cello solo would have greatly benefited if they had not been rushed by the conductor. Svetlana Ivanova, as the young lady of the title, was suitably soft and highly musical. Her expressive arm movements indicated a born Odette (for Swan Lake). Igor Zelensky, as the hooligan, lacked sharp rhythm and necessary charisma for the bad boy at the beginning – was this famous artist nervous in his new role? – but settled credibly by the more classical ending as the noble hero.
The music of The Bedbug is full of invention, surprises and humour. Twice during the ballet we were treated to amplified old recordings of popular Russian songs. There were plenty of Offenbach imitations and we even had Jewish Klezmer music, which supported what looked like a parody of Jewish dancing. Andrey Ivanov was breathtakingly astonishing as Prisypkin, the working-class man aspiring to and marrying into a bourgeois life-style. His false nose and large trousers helped his Chaplin-like characterisation. Ivanov’s movements were so much in tune with the music that, to my mind, he was the musical director on stage.
Valery Gergiev conducted the first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. The orchestra was superb and heroic but I am uncertain if the choreography added an extra dimension to Shostakovich’s famous score.
All dancers, including the excellent corps de ballet, delivered the high standard we expect from the Mariinsky/Kirov company. But it was unfair both to the dancers and to the audience that we had no idea what those excellent dancers Sergei Popov and Tatyana Tkachenko represented in The Young Lady and the Hooligan or what kind of roles all those 16 named solo dancers in The Bedbug played. Russian audiences know Mayakovsky’s poetry and plays. But here in London, in spite of excellent dancing, we went home disappointed.