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Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Le corsaire – ballet in three Acts (1856)
Choreography by Manuel Legris after Marius Petipa et. al.
Conrad: Robert Gabdullin, Médora: Maria Yakovleva, Gulnare: Liudmila Konovalova, Lanquedem: Kirill Kourlaev, Birbanto: Davide Dato, Zulméa: Alice Firenze, Seyd Pasha: Mihail Sosnovschi, Odalisques: Natascha Mair, Nina Tonoli, Prisca Zeisel, Corsaires: Leonardo Basilio, Francesco Costa, Marcin Dempc, Jakob Feyferlik, Richard Szabó, Alexandru Tcacenco, Zsolt Török, Geraud Wielick, Pas des forbans: Oxana Kiyanenko, Franziska Wallner-Hollinek, Alexandru Tcacenco, Zsolt Török, Soloists de la valse: Oxana Kiyanenko, Eszter Ledán, Anita Manolova, Laura Nistor
Corps de ballet
Wiener Staatsballett
Ballettakademie der Wiener Staatsoper
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Valerey Ovsianikov
Film direction by François Roussillon
rec. live at the Wiener Staatsoper, 31 March and 2 April 2016
Picture format: HD 16:9
Sound format: PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0
Region: A, B, C
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0090V [120 min]

Adolphe Adam’s best-known work for dancers is, of course, Giselle. Still performed regularly all around the world, that ballet has often been recorded on disc (for a very good recent recording - review). At the same time, a decent number of Blu-rays discs and DVDs preserve staged performances for home viewing (my own current favourite, on balance, is from the Bolshoi Ballet, filmed in stunning quality on BelAir Classiques Blu-ray BAC474).

Between 1830 and 1856, however, Adam wrote a further thirteen rather lesser-known works for dancers – seven ballet-pantomimes (ballets that included substantial elements of mimed action), one grand-ballet, one opera-ballet, one ballet-féerie and a single intriguingly-titled English-style pantomime. Only two were described, using the familiar modern portmanteau term, simply as ballets. Regardless of their precise categorisation, most of those thirteen have ever since remained shrouded in clouds of greater or lesser obscurity, with only expert balletomanes likely to know anything of such forgotten works as La chatte blanche, Faust, La fille du Danube, Les mohicans, L’écumeur des mer, Die Hamadryaden, The marble maiden (written specifically for an English audience), Griseldis and Orfa.

We are, however, fortunate in that the scores of the remaining four works have all been recorded in full. Richard Bonynge followed up his pioneering 1965 account of Le diable ŕ quatre with the London Symphony Orchestra (Eloquence 482 8603 - review) by recording the more ambitious Le corsaire with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1990 (recently re-released on Eloquence 482 8605 - review). Six years after that, Andrew Mogrelia and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra set down their accounts of La jolie fille de Gand (Marco Polo 8.223772-73, review ~ review) and La filleule des fees (Marco Polo 8.223734-35 - review).

In the case of Le corsaire, however, we are even more fortunate to be able to watch a number of staged performances that have been made available on Blu-ray and DVD. Many balletomanes will, I suspect, already own a copy of either the 1980s Kirov production (Warner Music Vision/NVC Arts 9031-71483-2) or one from a decade later danced by American Ballet Theatre (Arthaus Musik 100 066). More recently, English National Ballet recorded its hugely successful 2013 staging starring Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov (Opus Arte OA 1147 - review), while at much the same time I also enjoyed an updated interpretation, choreographed by Kader Belarbi, from the Ballet du Capitole (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7140 D - review ~ review).

As Ivor Guest makes clear in his study The Ballet of the Second Empire [London, 1955], even its original incarnation the plot of Le corsaire, a tale of piratical derring-do among Levantine slavers and pirates, was an overly-confusing sequence of to-ings, fro-ings and general carryings-on. As happened with many mid-nineteenth century ballets, subsequent additions to, subtractions from and modifications of both its story and its music eventually then produced, over the years, even more of a confusing mish-mash. Imagine, for instance, the befuddlement of audiences who’d been introduced and attracted to the ballet by the brief Act 2 pas de deux popularised in the West by Rudolf Nureyev, in the role of the slave Ali, and Margot Fonteyn, dancing that of the heroine Médora, when discovering that Ali’s role in the full ballet is otherwise so negligible as to be entirely, as we shall see, dispensable. More confusion is also easily generated by the fact that Médora has a friend Gulnare who, what with harem girls having very limited and standardised wardrobes, tends to look like her throughout. Tchaikovsky wisely addressed the potentially confusing issue of his own lookalikes Odette and Odile by ensuring that they consistently wore contrasting colours and exhibited clearly and obviously differentiated temperaments, but in Le corsaire – and especially from the back of the stalls – it’s very easy to lose track of whether it’s Médora or Gulnare who’s actually the featured dancing slave at any particular moment. When the matter of the confusing story is specifically addressed on the American Ballet Theatre DVD mentioned above, the company’s director is seen inviting cast and crew members to give a succinct account of Le corsaire’s plot. None of them can, with one poor woman asking querulously “Do you have an hour?”

In this new Wiener Staatsballett production Manuel Legris has wisely decided to simplify the narrative line a great deal, constructing thereby a much clearer and more linear story. Firstly, he adds a brief introductory scene showing how Médora and her friends are kidnapped by slave traders and thereby giving us a useful bit of backstory. Among several other subsequent changes, he also jettisons the slave Ali from the narrative entirely. The role of the hero Conrad’s loyal proletarian sidekick had been – unsurprisingly to anyone with a passing knowledge of how the arts operated in the Soviet Union – a complete interpolation created by choreographers working in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Apart, therefore, from the fact that Ali’s costume is a bit more visually interesting than Conrad’s utilitarian workaday pirate garb, the slave’s loss isn’t anything to be too worried about, especially when his dances are simply handed over to Conrad who thereby comes to enjoy a third – and, on this occasion, a properly elaborated and prolonged – Act 2 pas de deux with Médora. One more change that’s worth noting is that director Legris has introduced an interesting twist on the character of Médora’s purchaser Seyd Pasha, depicting him as an attractive young man rather than the ageing and bumbling buffoon that we generally find in other productions. As a result, the element of slapstick comedy in Acts 1 and 3 is considerably reduced.

Another simplification introduced by Legris is to get back, as much as possible, to Adam’s score. Over the years that had seen accretions from various works of, among many others, Grieg, Goldmark, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. This Vienna production gives us Adolphe Adam’s music with a few of the more familiar interpolations by Cesare Pugni, Yevgeny Kornblit, Duke Peter of Oldenburg, Riccardo Drigo, Yuli Gerber, Baron Boris Fitingof-Shel, Albert Zabel and Prince Ivan Troubetzkoy. Also retained is Léo Delibes’s much-loved and exquisitely-scored Act 3 dream-sequence known as Le jardin animé.
Moving on to the performance itself, the lively delivery of the overture is indicative of both the piratical high-jinks to come and the skilled and idiomatic contribution of the orchestra under the direction of Valery Ovsianikov. As noted above, Le corsaire is a ballet-pantomime and the importance of mime is clear from the start where we see the slave trader Lanquedem ordering his men to prepare an ambush. It’s sometimes somewhat condescendingly said that modern audiences find the conventions of nineteenth century mime confusing and alienating, but the gestures throughout this production are completely self-explanatory and certainly need not deter anyone.

Once the rest of the Act 1 action switches to the Adrianople slave market – a well-designed and attractive set that’s typical of the visual quality of the whole production – and it’s there, as Médora and her friends are to be auctioned, that we first encounter our hero, the eponymous corsair himself, Conrad. I have to say that Robert Gabdullin makes the most convincing piratical hero I’ve seen in this role. His is a very Errol Flynn approach, with enough charismatic charm and seductively winning smiles to sweep a complete pasha’s harem off its collective feet. Mr Gabdullin dances the role with appropriately oversized, grand gestures and immense energy. Strict purists might point to a superfluity of energy over elegance and, perhaps, a lack of exact precision in both his legs and his arm gestures, but let’s keep in mind that he’s portraying a rough pirate here and not a refined prince. I loved his performance. In the role of Médora, Gabdullin’s partner Maria Yakovleva is technically rather more assured, but her rather chilly general demeanour reminds me very much of the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova. That sense of emotional detachment may be appropriate when Médora is interacting on stage with her enemies – Lanquedem, Conrad’s treacherous deputy Birbanto or her purchaser Sayd Pasha – but when dancing with her true love Conrad it makes no dramatic sense at all. It is not, I hasten to add, that Ms Yakovleva lacks warmth entirely, for when dancing alone she is more than capable of winning the audience’s affection with a genuine radiance. Rather, it is that when partnering Mr Gabdullin on stage she seems to be smiling in an almost superficial manner and to be almost completely emotionally detached – in spite of her piratical partner’s megawatt smile being directed consistently and eagerly in her direction. All I can assume is that there may have been a lack of personal chemistry between the two dancers on this occasion.

In the supporting roles, Kirill Kourlaev as Lanquedem dances with great energy in his big Act 1 and Act 3 solos (he spends almost all of Act 2 tied-up as a prisoner). Dancing the part of Birbanto and displaying much of the elegance that Robert Gabdullin finds in shorter supply, Davide Dato also makes a strong impression, while Liudmila Konovalova also impresses in the role of Gulnare. Meanwhile the Vienna corps de ballet populates the stage very well, giving the recreated Andrianople marketplace a realistic feel, with convincingly individualised characters to be found in both the background and foreground areas of the stage.

The lack of chemistry between Gabdullin and Yakovleva becomes even more apparent in Act 2 where they spend more time together. If her dancing is somewhat more polished, his acting is markedly superior. In the best-known of their pas de deux, for instance, he gazes at her adoringly and constantly while she all too often is found gazing resolutely into space. I was reminded of the performances of Natalia Osipova and Leonid Sarafanov in La Scala’s Don Quixote (review) – both of them in their own right dancers of the very highest calibre but, when paired together, failing to gel at all.

The corps de ballet has quite a lot to do in Act 2 and does it rather well. Unintentional humour is, meanwhile, provided by the character of Birbanto who, we may deduce, is not really cut out for the violence of a pirate’s life. Not only is he the only corsair to flourish his scimitar upside-down during the band’s warlike dances, but his pistol anticlimactically produces a bang but not the slightest trace of smoke when he pulls the trigger. Unfortunately, the fact that Conrad had fired a spectacularly effective – and convincingly smoky – pistol shot during Act 1 made Birbanto’s effort look just a little silly and unnecessarily detracts our attention momentarily from the undoubted quality of Davide Dato’s performance.

Le corsaire conforms to the pattern of most classical ballets in that its third Act wraps matters up neatly. It encompasses two particularly celebrated challenges – one artistic and the other technical – both of which are successfully achieved here. The Le jardin animé episode gets off to a somewhat inappropriate start, in my view, as a bit of camera trickery is used to suggest that Sayd Pasha is falling asleep – something that jars against the strictly we-are-watching-what-the-theatre-audience-is-also-seeing approach to the rest of the production. The fantasy dances themselves are, however, well done, with a nice touch in the utilisation of so many children on stage. Following that, at the very end of the ballet the famous shipwreck scene – which mid-nineteenth century Paris audiences apparently thought the most amazing thing they had ever seen but which, quite bizarrely, the previously-mentioned 1980s Kirov performance omitted completely – is well achieved too, with an effectively cathartic final resolution bringing the Vienna performance to a satisfying end.

Having watched this disc three times in relatively quick succession, I think it now takes its place as the best filmed version of Le corsaire that is currently available. While it’s certainly true that the Gabdullin/Yakovleva partnership is somewhat less than convincing, this production’s pluses – most notably its rationalisation of the storyline, Manuel Legris’s accomplished and visually attractive choreography and the Vienna company’s strength in depth – more than make up for that particular deficiency. A good quality Blu-ray presentation, with finely delivered picture and sound, sets the seal on a very worthwhile and enjoyable release.

Rob Maynard



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