sat 22/09/2018

Firebird/ Marguerite and Armand/ Concerto DSCH, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Firebird/ Marguerite and Armand/ Concerto DSCH, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

Firebird/ Marguerite and Armand/ Concerto DSCH, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

Fonteyn and Nureyev must be spinning in their graves, but new Ratmansky is a delight

From NY with love: Alexei Ratmansky's joyful company work, acquired from America to great advantageImages © Natasha Razina/Mariinsky Theatre

This was the most eagerly anticipated programme of the Mariinsky visit - something old, something borrowed and something new. The old, that colourful fairytale of Stravinsky’s lush, melodious youth, The Firebird; the new, a recent acquisition by the Londoners’ favourite Russian, Alexei Ratmansky; and the borrowed, something from English ballet legend, Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, once kept under glass with the Fonteyn and Nureyev myths, but eventually released from the museum by Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche a decade ago.

The Ashton has now suffered the fate its choreographer feared - it has joined the list of international star vehicles whistled up for leading ladies who love period frocks and a tragic death. The wheels of this particular one were never intended to travel very far, and the bad news is that last night Marguerite and Armand was tragic in all the wrong ways, blighted by insensitive casting. Diana Vishneva, scheduled to have Vladimir Shklyarov for her lover, was suddenly switched to Konstantin Zverev, a reasonable porteur thrust into a gladiatorial arena of expectations that he hasn't the right gifts to satisfy. It was deeply unfair both on him and on the ballet itself.

The beauteous Vishneva, looking sumptuous in Cecil Beaton’s dresses, and giving the slender choreographic fabric the full prima swish, did not pretend to much chemistry with her partner, nor even looked at him more than was courteous to do so. She coughed and tottered well but the dying was awkwardly done, the flight of her soul into heaven more of a heave-ho by the unfortunate Zverev.

In a disappointing musical performance all evening under the sludgy conducting of Alexei Repnikov, only the game pianist stood out, young Vladimir Rumyantsev sounding capable of a much more ardent performance of Liszt’s piano sonata in B minor than he was being permitted in the cheesy cop-out orchestration from 1963. (So why not, when there is evidently a good pianist there, have the sonata played neat?) I wondered whether it was all down to slack coaching by Grant Coyle or slack company attention; either way, Ashton was murdered out there.

matvienko firebird natasharazinaTone is so very much the hardest thing to get right in ballet. In The Firebird, the tone we long for is the thrill of a children’s magic tale, and the flame of excitement should be lit by how the orchestra launch into the shadowy overture. It shouldn’t be a cause for nodding off. The Mariinsky production fields colourful elements of several historic designs, but sickly green lighting kills much of the gothic flourish of the various creatures with their wild wigs and insectoid carapaces.

Scarlet lighting blazes down whenever the Firebird leaps on, which should have been Anastasia Matvienko’s clue that more than gorgeous flying jetés were required - this bird is aflame, she must be scorching hot, emit a magical force that can subdue any monster. Tiny and lovely, Matvienko (pictured right in the role) fulfils the pretty picture without delivering much spirit. By contrast Xenia Dubrovina's Princess of Great Beauty was all lovely princessy warmth, and Soslan Kulaev as the bony Kostchei had a wonderful way of waggling his skull head as if it was only barely attached to his skeleton.

Ratmansky's ballet somehow smells of the Russian countryside as well as of Russian spirit and feeling

Best of all was the unexpected pleasure of Andrei Yermakov's Tsarevich hero. Three times in two evenings this young Petersburger has commanded the stage with his natural sincerity and communicative intelligence. At the weekend he was Lopatkina’s quietly interesting Cavalier in Balanchine’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; last night he was the engaging heart and lively soul of the Firebird (surprisingly, for Ivan Tsarevich is usually given a half-hearted performance by a junior man miffed by its lack of dancing), and then he was a compelling lead in Ratmansky’s captivating Shostakovich ballet, Concerto DSCH.

Made originally for New York City Ballet in 2008, its music is very familiar over here via Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Concerto, regularly given by the Royal Ballet companies. It takes nothing away from MacMillan’s haunting slow movement to say that Ratmansky’s use of the music is giddiest joy. It fits the Mariinsky like a glove, a fresh, youthful dance that somehow smells of the Russian countryside, as well as rippling with Russian spirit and emotion.

Once again the outstanding piano soloist Rumyantsev was hobbled by wooden conducting - but above his head Nadezhda Batoeva and Kimin Kim responded, fizzing with charm, the superb young Kim drawing gasps as he breezed through countless spinning jumps. At the centre, Yermakov formed with the ravishing Viktoria Tereshkina a partnership whose love was so intimate, sweet and fluidly shaped, and performed with such quiet intensity, that it made me wish the Ashton had been given to them. Those two ballets sit well together, borrowed from England and from America, but only one of them has found its soul in the Mariinsky.

Overall these two mixed programmes have provided bounty for talent-watchers, particularly, not quite so expected, in the male department (given that the Mariinsky is popularly characterised as where the girls are, while the Bolshoi is supposedly where the boys go). In Kim, Sergeyev and Yermakov the Mariinsky has young male rising stars of strong talent who are also keenly interesting behind the eyes.

Overleaf, watch Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche in performance and rehearsal of Ashton's Marguerite and Armand

Watch Sylvie Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche in performance and rehearsal of Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, from their DVD

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