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Ludwig MINKUS (1826-1917)
La bayadère, ballet in three Acts (1877)
Music orchestrated and arranged by John Lanchbery. Choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa.
Nikiya: Marianela Nuñez, Solor: Vadim Muntagirov, Gamzatti: Natalia Osipova, The high brahmin: Gary Avis, The rajah: Thomas Whitehead, The shades: Yuhui Choe, Yasmine Naghdi and Akane Takada, The bronze idol: Alexander Campbell
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Boris Gruzin
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon.
Picture: 1080i HD, 16:9. Audio formats: LPCM 2.0; 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. All regions.
rec. 2019 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7263D [136 mins]

A momentous cultural event occurred in New York City in 1927. The premiere of Al Jolson’s “talkie” The Jazz Singer – primitive though were its sound quality, storyline and dialogue – dealt a death blow to the silent movie. An international art form that had reached such sophisticated levels that it can still take one’s breath away was consigned, virtually overnight, to oblivion.

Exactly 50 years earlier, in 1877, a somewhat similar seismic cultural shift had occurred in the world of ballet shortly after the choreographer Marius Petipa had unveiled his dramatic masterpiece La bayadère. A love triangle in an exotic Indian setting, it featured an enormous cast of black-hearted brahmins, titillating temple dancers and faithful fakirs. That production marked the apogee of a distinctive and historically very important phase in dance history: the musical score had been almost entirely subordinated to all-powerful choreographers’ shopping-list demands (“eight bars of this… sixteen bars of that”, and so on). Such a practice seems quite bizarre today, but until the last quarter of the 19th century it was considered the perfectly normal way of arranging matters.

However, just a month after La bayadère’s premiere a second first performance – that of Swan Lake – marked the beginning of a completely unanticipated yet ultimately decisive realignment in the relationship between choreography and music in ballet. Tchaikovsky’s unrivalled melodic gifts and his pioneering introduction of so-called symphonic scoring began a process of refocusing attention on the composer’s contribution. Partly as a result, many composers who might otherwise have dismissed the idea of composing ballet scores were instead thereafter attracted to the form. That cultural shift was not, admittedly, as immediately apparent as the one that destroyed silent films so quickly after 1927. Indeed, it was to take several more decades before the relationship between the choreographer and the composer was finally resolved into a recognisably modern one. Nevertheless, in retrospect the decisive importance of those two 1877 premieres in elevating the importance of the musical score vis à vis choreography in ballet is clear. After all, whenever we conventionally speak of “Petipa’s La bayadère” but of “Tchaikovsky’s Swan lake”, we are implicitly recognising the transfer of the primary responsibility for a ballet from the choreographer to the composer. Moreover, the score’s intrinsic importance to a ballet is so widely assumed today that it goes unremarked upon to find someone claiming that they “know”, for instance, The Sleeping Beauty when, in reality, all they are familiar with is the music to the ballet.

La bayadère’s first claim on our attention is, then, as a supreme example of a particular art form that, like the silent film, has long been overshadowed and, indeed, unfairly devalued by its successor. Just as our long exposure to the language of sound cinema has robbed us of easy familiarity with the subtle unspoken “language” deployed in films made before 1927, the popular dominance of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker still sadly numbs many balletgoers to both the overall artistry and many of the individual conventions – most notably the greater emphasis on mimed action – of pre-Tchaikovsky ballet.

Apart from its important place in dance history, however, La bayadère also has a very specific aesthetic significance. As choreographer Natalia Makarova notes in the booklet essay, the Act 3 ballet blanc (generally referred to as The kingdom of the shades) “is certainly one of the most important creations in the history of classical ballet. It is Marius Petipa’s choreographic masterpiece, and it remains timeless.” Any ballet fan who has never seen the utterly mesmerising Act 2 Entrance of the shades lacks a crucial point of reference in their experience of dance. Thankfully, there are plenty of free internet opportunities to make its acquaintance.

To talk about Act 2 necessitates a clarification at this point, for La bayadère’s structure is somewhat problematic. Originally, a final Act had depicted a marriage and the destruction of a temple by the vengeful gods. That, however, was dropped from Soviet performances shortly after the Russian Revolution, supposedly because much of the required stage machinery – and the expertise in operating it – had been lost during the political and cultural upheaval of the times. It was only in the later 20th century that dancer and choreographer Natalia Makarova, assisted by arranger John Lanchbery, devised a recreation of the missing final act that has since been performed by companies such as the Royal Ballet and Milan’s La Scala. While the leading Russian companies and the Paris Opera Ballet still hold out against adopting it, Ms Makarova’s last Act undeniably adds a satisfying emotional resolution to the ballet’s plot. It also gives us an extra 20 or so minutes of highly enjoyable music and dancing.

The presence or absence of the final Act is one of the issues: where the others actually begin and end is also in dispute. Following Makarova’s intentions, the Royal Ballet and La Scala allocate three scenes to Act 1 (the sacred forest; a room in the palace; the palace gardens), a further three to Act 2 (Solor’s tent; the kingdom of the shades; Solor’s tent) and just one to the new final Act (the temple). In productions by the Russian and Paris companies, however, the ballet is structured rather differently, with a shorter Act 1 having just two scenes (the sacred forest; a room in the palace) and Act 2 being made up of just one (the palace gardens). As a result, Makarova’s Act 2 becomes their Act 3 and, as mentioned, her Act 3 is omitted altogether. There are, therefore, two alternative ways of locating and referring to La bayadère’s individual numbers, but for clarity in this review I will adhere to Makarova’s structure. For instance, the important Kingdom of the shades appears in the second, rather than the third, Act.

The most recent run of performances of the Royal Ballet’s production of La bayadère was especially interesting. Two of the company’s leading female principals, Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova, danced together on stage as love-rivals Nikiya and Gamzatti, swapping roles between performances. While both are supremely gifted dancers at the peak of their abilities, they are also so physically and temperamentally different that I had hoped that Opus Arte might have marketed a double video set that would have allowed us to make direct interpretative comparisons between the Nuñez/Osipova and Osipova/ Nuñez performances. But, at least for the time being, we will have to content ourselves with the account on this new disc, which showcases Ms Nuñez as the much put-upon temple dancer Nikiya and Ms Osipova as the rajah’s imperious and vengeful daughter Gamzatti. The decision to opt for that particular casting may, I imagine, have been made because an earlier Royal Ballet performance featuring Ms Nuñez as Gamzatti (to Tamara Rojo’s Nikiya) has already appeared on disc (OA 1043 D, see review).

Luckily, though, I think that this new release memorialises the more intriguing of the two possible castings, in that it is almost counterintuitive. Ms Nuñez, five years older than Ms Osipova, is regarded by many balletomanes as the grande dame of the Royal Ballet’s female principal dancers, so the role of the rajah’s imperious daughter Gamzatti might seem to fit her best. Ms Osipova, on the other hand, has frequently portrayed spunky young spitfires, so that playing the temple dancer Nikiya, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who aspires to marry the victorious aristocratic warrior Solor, would seem a rather natural fit. As it turns out, the reversal of our natural expectations works very well. After all, Nikiya has risen to the rank of chief dancer at the temple and so could plausibly be a somewhat older character than we tend to assume. Gamzatti, meanwhile, could equally convincingly be a younger spoiled brat.

Thus, on Ms Nuñez’s very first entry (8:43) and a succeeding solo, the tentativeness of a woman finding herself in love is conjoined with a distinct air of poised elegance entirely befitting a high priestess. Cleverly conceived lighting, a luminously white costume and an inky-black background effectively give her an image of serene, almost ethereal, purity. Even the small gesture of commanding the flames of the jungle campfire into life is done with a degree of assured authority sufficient to put out a raging bushfire. At her own gorgeously-costumed first entry (24:47), Ms Osipova offers no surprises, communicating a degree of superciliousness that, just a few minutes later, veers into pure melodramatic malevolence as she eavesdrops on the rajah and the high brahmin. Within a very short time, however, she unexpectedly and entirely subverts our expectations by appearing utterly and genuinely distraught at the prospect of losing Solor to Nikiya (30:50 onwards). The resulting face-to-face confrontation between the princess and the temple dancer (31:46 onwards) is one of the dramatic highlights of the performance, particularly thanks to Ms Osipova’s believability. In one of the disc’s accompanying mini-features, she explains that she considers Gamzatti’s love for Solor to be completely genuine and not just, as some productions suggest, the trophy-hunting fancy of an indulged princess. (Gamzatti’s rehabilitation is, by the way, taken to the extreme in current performances at the Bolshoi Ballet, in which she is portrayed as entirely innocent of Nikiya’s eventual murder. The whole sorry episode is blamed on her father the rajah.) Close-up shots suggest that Ms Osipova is really rather an accomplished actress when it comes to conveying facial emotion on stage and, if she chooses to follow her ex-boyfriend and sometime ballet superstar Sergei Polunin into feature films, she might well have as successful a career in drama as she has enjoyed in ballet. In this performance she displaces Darcey Bussell (review) as my Gamzatti of choice.

Marianela Nuñez’s immense talents as a dancer have propelled her to the very summit of her profession, and are never in doubt in this performance. As an actress, however, she does not convey high drama at the same level of intensity as Ms Osipova. In the context of La bayadère’s more melodramatic moments, that can be a significant deficiency. The episode in Act 1 Scene 2, for instance, when Nikiya momentarily loses her emotional control and violently attacks Gamzatti with a knife, requires rather more than the passion of a housewife about to carve the Sunday roast. Ms Nuñez does score exceptionally strongly in communicating her love for Solor – even if it is of a more gentle, soulful variety than Gamzatti’s volatile version. Ms Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov actually do what a surprising number of other paired dancers fail to do – they look into each other’s eyes in a believably affectionate manner. It is easy to see why they have been regularly paired in recent Covent Garden productions.

Mr Mutagirov’s career has developed – quite literally, I guess – by leaps and bounds since I first saw him dancing in English National Ballet’s Le corsaire (review) at the Bristol Hippodrome in November 2013. Afterwards, he has joined the Royal Ballet, and he now seems to be the company’s leading man of choice for the great classical roles. Charmingly diffident in real life, as the disc’s extra features confirm, he commands the stage less by strength of personality than by an immensely gifted and ever more impressive technique that is perfectly deployed at the service of a supple and flexible body. He also is an exceptionally considerate and, when required, self-effacing partner. While his acting ability can still at times be something of a work in progress, Muntagirov’s gently charismatic air carries him successfully through the moments when his thespian talents might otherwise let him down. Even when portraying the morally-flawed male characters that are so common in ballet – the anonymous young man in The Two Pigeons, the prince in Swan Lake or, indeed, Solor in La bayadère – he communicates not so much wickedness as weakness and an attractive quality of vulnerability. Meanwhile, the invariably outstanding quality of his dancing is enough to make us overlook any other deficiencies.

I would normally move on next to consideration of the other major roles in a ballet but, after the three principal characters, the fourth spot in any appreciation of Le bayadère must be allocated to the corps de ballet. Bookended by short scenes in Solor’s tent, the bulk of Natalia Makarova’s Act 2 is set in the dream world of the kingdom of the shades – spirits of young women who, rather like Giselle’s wilis but in generally less homicidal form, have been betrayed by inconstant lovers. Act 2’s Entrance of the shades is undoubtedly La bayadère’s choreographic highlight but, while the Royal Ballet’s performance is an undeniably very attractive one, in some respects I find it a little disappointing, particularly when contrasted with a recent one from the Bolshoi Ballet (review). Firstly, only 24 dancers are deployed in the main body in London, whereas the Bolshoi fields 32. Although that may not seem a particularly significant addition, seeing eight rather than six columns of four dancers each really does make a greater than expected visual difference. Secondly, the Royal Ballet dancers come onto the stage via a single angled ramp. At the Bolshoi, on the other hand, no less than four zigzagging ramps are used, thereby creating many more of the intricate visual patterns so characteristic of Marius Petipa’s finest creations. In the third place, while neither the Bolshoi nor the Royal Ballet dancers demonstrate the absolutely flawless uniformity that Petipa would have demanded, at times the London company’s corps members are – both here and in the earlier Act 1 betrothal celebrations - alarmingly prone to exhibit some distracting oddly-angled limbs and to fall out of precise coordination with each other. Finally, the shades’ geometric gyrations around the stage (think Busby Berkeley) are captured with, I think, more flair and imagination by the team behind the filmed Bolshoi performance. In London, director Ross MacGibbon films the dancers for a sustained period in long-shot, thus emphasising that the shades are an anonymous body of spirits rather than picking out any particular individuals. That, though, proves something of a visual disappointment when compared to the Moscow film where more camera angles and the greater use of medium-shots and close-ups propel us right into the action. In my past ballet reviews, I have yielded to no-one in my appreciation of Mr MacGibbon’s talents in bringing ballet to the screen, but on this occasion his very fine achievement has been trumped by a simply outstanding one from Russia.

Of the other roles in this performance, Gary Avis and Thomas Whitehead make particularly dastardly villains as, respectively, the high brahmin and the rajah, while Royal Ballet principal Alexander Campbell delights the Covent Garden audience as the dancing bronze idol – his existence presumably indicative of an earlier visit to India by Dr Coppélius. The Royal Ballet’s enviable strength in depth allows for luxury casting in its major productions, so here we find two more principals – Yasmine Naghdi and Akane Takada – joining first soloist Yuhui Choe as the three shades given featured dances. Meanwhile, conductor Boris Gruzin leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House expertly, idiomatically and with sound appreciation for the dancers’ practical requirements. Apart from my reservations about The entrance of the shades, the rest of the filming and editing process – as well as the sound engineering - has been handled extremely well. This is an altogether highly recommendable release, even if, in an uncharacteristically slipshod moment, the details on its rear cover categorise La bayadère as an opera.

There remains, however, the matter of that rival Blu-ray/DVD option from the Bolshoi. Thankfully for Covent Garden, while the Russian performance looks – especially in its Blu-ray incarnation - absolutely stunning, it also exhibits its own flaws. Some prospective purchasers will be deterred because it omits Ms Makarova’s final and cathartic last Act. Others may find its leading dancer, the supremely gifted Svetlana Zakharova, simply too emotionally chilled and her default de haute en bas manner somewhat alienating. The more woke among us will undoubtedly consider the Bolshoi company’s continued use of blackface offensive. As a result, this newly released and very welcome Royal Ballet production may be a better overall first choice for many, although, in an ideal world it would be good to possess both versions so as to be able to appreciate the undeniable strengths each of them exhibits.

Rob Maynard

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