thu 25/07/2024

La Bayadère, The Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

La Bayadère, The Royal Ballet

La Bayadère, The Royal Ballet

Rajahs, tiger-hunts, sex-slaves and opium dreams - delivered too cautiously

Night on the bare mountain: the Shades in the most perfect of classical ballet visions© Dee Conway/ROH

Jane Austen would approve, I think, of the plot of La Bayadère, which is about class and wealth getting in the way of love. She might have difficulty with the setting. It is a grand, exotically located ballet offering us an fantastical India of Rajahs, tiger-hunts and sex-slaves - or rather temple-dancers, whose job is to carry holy water to the needy and put up with the unwanted lust of the High Brahmin.

There is jealousy, murder, drug-taking and mayhem as the temple collapses, and final union beyond this world for the leading couple. And all of that comes with the single most heavenly scene in all classical ballet, as dozens of girls in white tutus pour out of the Himalayas under the moon to a tune so hypnotic that you can’t shake it off.

The production's lush scenery and costumes are worth the ticket price, as (were it better played) is the score by the Viennese waltz-king, Ludwig Minkus. It is the best-designed of the Royal Ballet's Petipa classics (Yolanda Sonnabend puts the women in bikini-tutus, the men in draped pantaloons tucked into pale boots) and the company tackles this 1877 classic with more identification with the dramatic characterisation than with the melting eastern delicacy of some of the choreography.

The two ballerinas battle it out for who has a greater claim over Solor, with necklaces flung and daggers drawn

The creator Marius Petipa - a Frenchman in Russia - pleased his public with the European classical brilliance of the rich princess and the more sinuous oriental ballet language of the poor temple-dancer. These are two tremendous ballerina roles, and you need more numerous top-notch ladies to handle a long run of casts than the Royal Ballet currently has.

With Tamara Rojo gone and the news of the imminent retirement of the gloriously evergreen Leanne Benjamin ringing in our ears, an injury took Alina Cojocaru out of the opening night of La Bayadère - now the only ballerina at Covent Garden who is truly up to the lyrical mystique and magical allure of all-suffering Nikiya. Her replacement Roberta Marquez is tiny and neat, but as a presence she was totally overpowered by the charismatic Marianela Nuñez as her love rival, the princess Gamzatti, and even too by a surprisingly heartfelt burst of ardour from the man in the middle, Federico Bonelli, who is usually the soul of discretion.

As the warrior Solor, the leading man has to tread a virtually impossible line defining a fellow who genuinely swears love over the sacred fire to Nikiya one day and then callously walks off with the princess the next while Nikiya is dying from snakebite in front of him. Handsome Bonelli found a fine explanation - it seemed that a soldier with a gentle soul was left critically undecided when suddenly offered the hand of the princess, and was still considering how best to back out of it when events moved too fast for him. His urgent solo of despair, having taken opium on his wedding night, dreaming of Nikiya, had real poignancy in the gestures.

Gestures are all-important in this ballet, much more than in the familiar, later classics. Gary Avis had huge fun as the lustiest of High Brahmins, adapting his costume to expose more than usual of the holy man’s tum, and semaphoring his character in unmistakable colours: he gropes Nikiya, she rejects him, he sees her with Solor, he vows to ruin them, etc.

Equally there is a terrific scene between the two ballerinas which is all mime, as princess Gamzatti confronts the low-caste Nikiya, and the two battle it out for who has a greater claim over Solor, with necklaces flung and daggers drawn. Nuñez, much taller than Marquez, looked as if she could crush her rival between her fingers, but little Marquez suddenly fought back - a kitten turned hellcat.

Below, the Royal Opera House's trailer for the ballet, featuring glimpses of Nuñez, Avis, Acosta and Rojo:

In dance terms, it was Nuñez’s night - she is a commanding classical ballerina with a wonder of a jeté, like silk floating in air, and she glittered through her grand scene. Marquez pleaded and died sympathetically but without the significance in the scheme of things that you must feel, illogically, in this ballet if it means anything.

The corps de ballet carefully picked their way through the swaying processional of the Shades with more refinement than they mustered in the earlier ensemble dances at the temple and at the court. Despite Natalia Makarova’s coaching, those Royal Ballet arms  remain resolutely blocky - they flapped the pretty fans and veils like Betjeman’s Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, rather than delectably enhancing Asiatic charms. La Bayadère is a rich cultural and aesthetic object in the art of ballet, and I would wish it to be hot, misty and sensual, a faraway time and a faraway place to go and soak in for three hours.

But then a top-quality night was not possible with such a rough show from the orchestra under Valery Ovsyanikov. Ovsyanikov was so good in the more delicate French music of Giselle with the Mikhailovsky last week, but ponderous here (and I fear under-rehearsed with the violins, in particular). Minkus wrote rousing scores for Paquita and Don Quixote too, but La Bayadère's is the finest, with eclectic hints of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner in dramatic "recitative" passages dropped alongside joyful Viennese dansabile setpieces.

Bouquets for controlled beauty in trying circumstances to Akane Takada and Fumi Kaneko as Shades soloists, and, for making real people of small character parts, to Johannes Stepanek as Solor’s non-dancing lieutenant and Genesia Rosato as princess Gamzatti’s creepy Aya.

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