Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
La Bayadère - ballet in three acts (1877) [123:00]
Music arranged by John Lanchbery
Choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa
Nikiya - Altynai Asylmuratova
Solor - Irek Mukhamedov
Gamzatti - Darcey Bussell
The bronze idol - Tetsuya Kumakawa
The High Brahmin - Anthony Dowell
Dugmanta (The Rajah) - David Drew
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/John Lanchbery
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, March 1991
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107 257 [123:00]  

In his recent review of the latest DVD release of Minkus’s most popular ballet Don Quixote (see here), my colleague Dan Morgan opined that he “wouldn’t mind if [he] never saw Minkus’ La Bayadère again”. While I think he was probably just having a bit of fun with his readers, it’s certainly true that La Bayadère (“The temple dancer”) doesn’t have the earlier ballet’s endless vitality and joie de vivre and - with the heroine killed by a snake-bite and the hero ultimately crushed by a collapsing giant Buddha - it’s not an entertainment that’s likely to send audiences flooding out of the auditorium with wide grins on their faces.
It is, nonetheless, a work that’s been welcomed back with open arms since it first began reappearing in the repertoire of western ballet companies fifty years ago. And anyone who assumes, on the basis of Tchaikovsky’s scores, that all ballets revolve around swans, magic spells, glittering fairies, beautiful sleeping princesses, subversive rodent armies, kingdoms of sweets and kitchen implements that are suddenly transmogrified into handsome princes, will find it a real eye-opener. For La Bayadère actually has an almost believable story behind it - one that features very human characters who, even if they do happen to be rajahs, brahmins, half-naked fakirs, temple dancing girls and the like, exhibit such realistic human emotions as lust, jealousy and tranfiguring love. And let me pre-empt anyone who points out that La Bayadère’s most famous set-piece, The Kingdom of the Shades, features some 32 (or 24 in this production) very fanciful and un-human ghostly spirits of dead girls, by observing that they appear merely as imaginary figments in an opium-induced dream rather than as real characters in the drama. The ballet’s plot is, in fact, an altogether “operatic” one and the characters and their predicaments - very reminiscent of Aïda - would certainly have appealed to Verdi, even if the exotic setting might put one more in mind of Meyerbeer or Delibes.
One important point to note is that this DVD features Natalia Makarova’s performing version of La Bayadère, originally seen in New York a decade earlier and notable for its recreation of the ballet’s lost final act that features that collapsing giant Buddha. Anyone, therefore, who has seen live performances by the Bolshoi or Mariinsky companies - both presented in London in recent years - or the Paris Opera Ballet’s production, either live or on DVD (NVC Arts / Warner Music Vision 4509-96851-2) will be in for the very pleasant bonus of an extra 21 or so extra minutes, even though they’ll be missing out on Act 2’s spectacular romp of an “Indian Dance” that Ms Makarova chose to jettison. This reconstructed final Act, set to music specially put together by John Lanchbery who also conducts the performance, rounds off the story in a far more emotionally satisfying way and has since been widely adopted by many ballet companies.
The dancing of the principal soloists is quite simply superb. Altynai Asylmuratova conveys in every technically assured movement the emotion that Nikiya is feeling, ranging from ecstatic, impulsive young love to the darkest despair that leads her to reject an antidote to the fatal snake venom. The role of her lover, the warrior Solor, is danced by Irek Mukhamedov who combines obvious physical strength and crowd-pleasing showmanship with great artistry. If, however, the 1991 Covent Garden audience offer unsinted admiration to those two Soviet-trained dancers, they reserve their real affection for the home company’s very own Darcey Bussell. In her portrayal of the rajah’s daughter Gamzatti who will stop at nothing - murder included - to ensure that Solor will marry her and not the humble dancer, she successfully matches the considerable talents of Asylmuratov and Mukhamedov.
Anthony Dowell makes a truly flesh-creeping High Brahmin. David Drew looks very much like one imagines a rajah ought to look, even though there is little for him to do apart from appearing generically regal (so much so, that when, in the final reconstructed act, he actually gets to catch and partner Gamzatti for a few steps, it comes as quite a surprise.) The very brief but crowd-pleasing role of the Bronze Idol usually brings the house down and here, with Tetsuya Kumakawa in the role, we have no exception. The Covent Garden corps de ballet was not, in 1991, the best drilled (the rival DVD that I mentioned earlier demonstrates that the 1994 vintage Paris Opera Ballet standards were markedly higher) and that detracts somewhat from the viewer’s enjoyment, especially in The Kingdom of the Shades where, as the Russian companies invariably demonstrate, complete precision is and ought to be all. Conductor John Lanchbery knows Minkus’s score inside out, of course, and gives it, whether movingly sentimental melody or music-hall rum-ti-tumming, a fine outing. Derek Bailey’s direction is utterly sympathetic to the attractively exotic production, with well chosen camera angles and cuts, but the fact that this was originally a TV broadcast and is now 20 years old is apparent in the absence of the sort of pin-sharp images that we expect to see today.
This particular production has also done the rounds before. The copy that I have had for some years was issued in 2003 on the TDK label (DV-BLLB) and that, in conjunction with the very different Paris Opera Ballet version - and maybe the old Kirov production featuring Komleva, Abdyev and Terekhova (Kultur DVD D1113) - was probably enough at the time. There are now, though, two more recent productions available, both offering Makarova’s extended version: Zakharova, Bolle and Brusson at La Scala (TDK DVWW-BLLBSC) and a new Royal Opera House DVD starring Rojo, Acosta and Nuñez (Opus Arte OA 1043 D). I would be happy with either - or, preferably, both!
What I would really love to see, though, is the legendary 1941 Soviet art deco production that starred Natalia Dudinskaya as Nikiya and Vakhtang Chabukiani as Solor. You can catch a glimpse of them in action - and, in the case of the amazingly fleet of foot Chabukiani, that certainly does mean action! - here. I think that if that production were available in full, even Dan Morgan might be happy to see La Bayadère once again!
Rob Maynard
Derek Bailey’s direction is utterly sympathetic to this attractively exotic production.