When the Bolshoi kicked off their London season the week after the Kirov finished theirs, one could sense an unspoken rivalry hovering over Covent Garden. Thus far into their season, it seems undeniable that the Bolshoi have been the better company, given the poor London reception to Valery Gergiev‘s all-Shostakovich programme.
And as though to rub salt in the metaphorical wound, the Bolshoi have brought their staging of the Shostakovich comedy The Bright Stream for its London premiere. It may not be as outlandish and modern as much of what the Kirov presented, but in its undiscerning simplicity, the production is miraculous.
The story of the ballet is a tad convoluted. We begin with a group of dancers, venturing into the countryside to celebrate the end of the harvest. It transpires that one of the land girls has previously studied ballet in the City but gave it up to marry the man of her dreams. Irritatingly, this same man repays her by attempting to seduce a beautiful ballerina of the company. And coincidentally, the land girl and the ballerina are best friends. Thereafter, the plot becomes complex and involves much cross-dressing, seduction of elderly neighbours and men in dog costumes.
Luckily, it was simpler to follow in theatre than I would have imagined, and if details were occasionally lost, the audience was happy to be carried along with the gorgeous dancing. The ballet was a frivolous romp, and it seems inconceivable that the work was banned by Stalinist Russia – surely more a result of Shostakovich’s reputation than of the composition itself.
The score is a jubilant, boisterous affair. With its endlessly chirping woodwind, incessant percussion rhythms and amusingly inappropriate trombone melodies, it seems every bit as violently sexual and musically offensive as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This was never more evident than under the baton of Pavel Sorokin, whose sprightly, alert reading relished the instrumental writing and drew typically lively playing from the Bolshoi orchestra.
As with The Pharaoh’s Daughter, the original choreography for the ballet has been lost, so what we saw on Thursday was a version by Alexei Ratmansky. This has already seen stunning reviews abroad, and it went down a treat in London. Any worries that The Bright Stream might seem a museum piece were confounded when the curtain rose to reveal a barrage of banners, all blazoned with anti-Shostakovich propaganda. What this all meant, it is difficult to say (especially so given a lack of an English translation), but it was an enthralling opening. Luckily, elsewhere Ratmansky seems to have dwelt on the work’s theatrical, not political aspects.
His staging is simple but it does its job, and it does it well. The lusty reds and golds of the first act are contrasted by the mysteriously lit, nocturnal setting of much of the second. If it ever seemed a little dull, we were soon reminded otherwise – a steam train might run past, or perhaps a set of tractors would begin ploughing the distant fields. For the final scene, we were even treated to a gaudy representation of the Sun on the back wall, complete with flashing sunbeams!
As is usual, we must praise the Bolshoi team for their exquisite dancing, and top of the bill came Maria Alexandrova and Sergei Filin playing the two anonymous dancers. Alexandrova is a confident young woman with a firm stage presence and a sound technique. Filin meanwhile produced some extraordinarily expressive dancing. Svetlana Lunkina as Zina acted brilliantly (in Act One, she conveyed her sadness with heartbreaking truthfulness) and used her supple frame to great effect, even if she had a tendency to flail. More problematic was Yuri Klevtsov as Pytor who rarely possessed the elegance of Filin and notably struggled to manoeuvre Lunkina above his shoulders.
If there is a problem with the ballet it is a lack of consistency. The first half of Act Two was one of the most uproariously funny things that Covent Garden has seen for quite a while, yet the comedy elsewhere was sketchy. Egor Simachev as the loveable old man Gavrilych notably never quite received the laughs that this part should attract. Luckily, character actors Alexei Loparevich and Irina Zibrova were more than compensation – their awkward Chaconne in Act One was pricelessly funny. Elsewhere, the ballet’s lack of formal structure left the audience unsure of when to clap, and sudden shifts between comedy and tragedy proved disorientating.
However, there were too many brilliant moments for this to be too much of an issue, and the enthusiastic audience response makes it seem criminal that there are only two London performances.