After two triumphs for the Bolshoi opera last week, it is now the turn of the more famous Bolshoi ballet, who kicked off their month long programme last night with Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter. I credit Petipa, but only sketches remain of his 1862 production, and this version, premiered in London in 2004, is the result of a long process of research by the Bolshoi team. The reconstruction is by Pierre Lacotte, and though he has seemingly attempted to emulate the Petipian style, it is hard to escape the feeling that there is really very little of Petipa here.
The choreography is often too busy, and the steps are occasionally rudimentary. Perhaps it is a fault of the size of the Covent Garden stage, but often there seemed to be too much happening, and the plot often struggled to emerge behind the lavish trappings.
The story of The Pharaoh’s Daughter begins with an English lord, caught in an Egyptian storm, taking refuge inside a Pyramid. There, he smokes opium and imagines himself transported back in time, when he saves and falls in love with Aspicia, the beautiful daughter of the Pharaoh. Unluckily, the Nubian King also has his eye on Aspicia, and all the poor woman can do to save herself from the King’s clutches is throw herself into the nearest river. Having been returned to land by three helpful river spirits, she is given permission to marry her beloved, at which point the opium wears off and the dream ends.
The whole thing seemed a bit nonsensical, and it was generally in the moments of dramatic irrelevancy that the ballet really came to life. The most absorbing of the three acts was the second, for more than the others it discarded plot in favour of spectacle. Here, the gorgeously opulent set was the background for an extended series of virtuosic dances by the principals and the corps de ballet.
Sadly, the brilliant Bolshoi team were undermined in the first and third acts by the haziness of the story. If it seems long-winded on paper, it was almost impenetrable in the theatre, partly because Lacotte has reduced the ballet from five hours to three, removing most of the exposition and explanation. Matters were not helped by a problematic avoidance of clarity in the direction. The lion attack in Act One occurred at the back of the stage and behind scenery, and the lion itself initially looked like a fluffy ball. Again, in the third Act, the confusion after a snake attack was audible, since over 50% of the audience had missed it. It seems paradoxical that in this most spectacular of works, important plot details can be relegated to the side of the stage, especially when the stage is so large and otherwise so superbly decorated.
Perhaps at least the poor lion attack can be forgiven, since the production attempted to be comic and not scary. Unfortunately, much of the humour fell completely flat. A monkey in Act One was unfunny and barely attracted a snigger. A man ran flailing across the stage at the odd moment, but the audience titter was more embarrassed than involved. In a performance robbed of humour, the huge sets and endless streams of dancers soon became tiresome and stodgy. The music droned on with its set of dull, Classical melodies, while the continual pauses for applause interrupted any dramatic continuity.
Ultimately, the evening was only saved by a number of stunning individual performances. Top of the bill was Svetlana Zakharova in the role of Aspicia, whose technique, poise and beauty confirmed why she is regarded as one of the great modern ballerinas. If anything, she was too good for the role. She has a reliable Taor in Sergei Filin, although his manner occasionally seemed lax in the ensemble passages. Both Denis Medvedev and Maria Alexandrova were excellent in their supporting roles, while special mention must go to the enchanting trio of Rivers in the third Act.
Though the music by Cesare Pugni is dull and repetitive, Pavel Klinichev conducted the mighty Bolshoi orchestra smartly, and he encouraged some outstanding solo playing, notably a flute passage in Act Two and one for clarinet in Act Three. With such strong musicianship from dancers and orchestra, it was hard not to feel a tinge of disappointment at the end of the evening. The spectacle was grand, but the story needed to be clearer for the humanity to emerge.