Bolshoi reflections: creaky drama and a rising star in London

Don Quixote, Swan Lake, The Taming of the Shrew, Le Corsaire

We’re over a month into the BBC Proms season, yet I’ve only attended one concert thus far. What gives? Apart from a week away at Verbier Festival and Dorset Opera, there’s been another gem of an attraction keeping me from the barn that is the Royal Albert Hall: the Bolshoi Ballet. It’s always a big event when the Bolshoi’s in town (well, Bolshoi means ‘big’!) and balletomanes have been flocking to the Royal Opera House in their droves. Apart from The Flames of Paris, performances sold out ridiculously quickly, even at eye-watering prices. So did the Bolshoi live up to expectations?

Denis Rodkin (Basil) and Olga Smirnova (Kitri) in Don Quixote © John Hudson

Denis Rodkin (Basilio) and Olga Smirnova (Kitri) in Don Quixote
© John Hudson

I was lucky enough to catch six performances over the three-week residency – mostly from cheap standing tickets – and was impressed by the high energy and attack of the dancing, but sometimes frustrated by the standard of the stagings. Don Quixote was the perfect case in point. Alexei Fadeyechev’s version is less than six months old, but it already looks dated. Technicolor sets are flooded with Mediterranean sunshine, and it was a joy to hear the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra play with such swagger, especially the lacerating brass (far more secure than the usual house band at this address). But to what effect? Fadeyechev’s vague storytelling – the Don is very much an irrelevance, the tilting at windmills going for nothing – actually made Carlos Acosta’s version for the Royal Ballet look coherent. On opening night, Olga Smirnova’s steely brilliance was never in doubt, but she seemed completely miscast as Kitri, while Denis Rodkin was a willowy, graceful Basilio, impossibly noble for this peasant barber. Fadeyechev includes a few weird insertions in his version, stylistic mismatches that sounded like third-rate Khachaturian, including a jig by one Vasily Soloviev-Sedoy.

At least the storytelling was clearer in Le Corsaire, but what a creaky swashbuckler it is, lacking English National Ballet’s admirable concision. Marius Petipa layered on the additions over the years and Alexei Ratmansky gives us a reconstruction of the 1899 St Petersburg version. Admittedly, some of the these additions provide the highlights, including a spectacularly beautiful Jardin animé (scored to Delibes) but the ballet goes on for ever… it’s like being force-fed a box of chocolates at one sitting. And I have a sweet tooth.

Yulia Stepanova (Queen of the Dryads) and Alexei Loparevich (Don Quixote) © Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Ballet

Yulia Stepanova (Queen of the Dryads) and Alexei Loparevich (Don Quixote)
© Elena Fetisova | Bolshoi Theatre

An irritating administrative aspect of the Bolshoi’s visit was that no casting had been announced by the time booking opened to Friends of Covent Garden, introducing an element of pot luck to ticket hunting. Fortunately, I hit the jackpot: Yulia Stepanova. By a quirk of fate, I got to see her ethereal Queen of the Dryads in Don Q, a gorgeous Odette/Odile in Swan Lake (as well as her silky Russian Bride in a later cast) and her role debut as Medora in Corsaire. In Swan Lake, she was making her Bolshoi debut, having performed it here with the Mariinsky two years ago. Her Odette was emotionally involved, vulnerable and feather-light, with exquisite arabesques, while her Odile was seductive, with tidy fouettés and precise attack. In Corsaire, Stepanova exhibited great musicality and, although not flawless, her Medora played to her strength of meringue-light delicacy and charm – which seems, to me, unusual for the company’s style. The Vaganova Academy trained dancer moved to the Bolshoi in 2015 as a Soloist, but promotion surely beckons, especially after Makhar Vaziev has entrusted her with such high profile London performances.

Yulia Stepanova (Medora) and Denis Rodkin (Conrad) © Alice Pennefather

Yulia Stepanova (Medora) and Denis Rodkin (Conrad) in Le Corsaire
© Alice Pennefather

Stepanova was strongly partnered by Rodkin in both Corsaire and Swan Lake. He’s strong and athletic, but seemed constrained by the limited size of the Covent Garden stage, reining in his grands jetés en tournant, and his acting – especially as Siegfried – was a bit of a blank canvas, consisting of only one puzzled expression, as if he was trying to remember if he’d left the gas on.

Svetlana Zakharova (Odette) in Swan Lake © Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre

Svetlana Zakharova (Odette) in Swan Lake
© Damir Yusupov | Bolshoi Theatre

Both performances of Swan Lake I caught were very strongly danced by the principals. Up close from Row B of the Stalls, it was impossible not to marvel at Svetlana Zakharova – a regal swan, with sinewy arms and the most graceful fingers, and an icily dark Odile. Artemy Belyakov was also a terrific ‘Evil Genius’ (a very Austin Powers title!) with less mime and more dancing than the Royal Ballet’s von Rothbart. But Yuri Grigorovich’s production! Drab sets, the lake barely visible, and an irritant jester were nothing to the denouement. Although not as bad as the Mariinsky’s version (acres of Riccardo Drigo and a happy ending to boot), the finale is pure fudge. Just as the music sweeps into Tchaikovsky’s great apotheosis, Grigorovich cuts it away and you’re left with an apology of an ending where Siegfried is left alone. No wonder Rodkin looked confused. Seeing the performance from such close quarters also confirmed that the corps de ballet was far from flawless, every little timing error magnified. The 2014 Mariinsky corps was more disciplined.

I reviewed Jean-Christophe Maillot’s terrific The Taming of the Shrew elsewhere (Smirnova much better cast as a wily Bianca), but the very next evening the second cast, apart from Kristina Kretova’s lively Katharina, was several notches down on the charisma scale. And that sums up the unevenness of this Bolshoi season – utterly brilliant one moment, frustrating the next.

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