“Le Corsaire” and “Giselle”
Bavarian State Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet
National Theatre and Prinzregententheater
Munich, Germany,
March 2007

by Marc Haegeman
copyright © 2007 by Marc Haegeman

Marius Petipa rules in Munich this first half of the year. The local company, the Bavarian State Ballet, programmes several of the choreographer’s full-length classics during the season and Russia’s Mariinsky and Bolshoi return to Munich for brief stints which further reveal the richness and value of Petipa’s inspiration. Central in this homage to the great French master is the new staging of “Le Corsaire” by the Bavarian State Ballet, premiered last January at the National Theatre in Munich and remaining on the programme until July.

“Le Corsaire” is best known by the irresistible version from the Mariinsky, staged in 1987 and still danced by the company to this day. The result of some 120 years of performance tradition (the first Russian “Corsaire” dates from 1858, two years after the Parisian premiere), changes and interpolations in choreography and score by innumerable hands, we have seen the ballet performed with incomparable tongue-in-cheek verve and understanding. It contains some of the most popular pieces in ballet history (the pas d’esclave and the famous pas d’action, which can also be seen in galas and competitions everywhere) and boasts Petipa’s magnificent “Le Jardin animé” as the icing on the cake.

Now, for Munich, Ivan Liška, artistic director of the Bavarian company, has chosen a more authentic approach, aiming to bring back “Le Corsaire” as close as possible to the 1899 St. Petersburg production, the last one in which Petipa was involved. At the same time Liška wanted to use the original score by Adolphe Adam as much as possible. Quite an awesome task since the choreography hasn’t survived completely and the correspondence between steps and music often had to be re-established.
With the invaluable expertise of Doug Fullington, who already mounted Petipa’s 1899 “Jardin animé” for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School a few years back based on the Stepanov notations preserved at the Harvard Theatre Collection, the late 19th – early 20th-century choreography was, where available, reconstructed. The gaps in the Stepanov notations were filled with choreography by Liška, who also set the mimed dialogues described with words in the notations into mime and movement. Music historian Maria Babanina acquired Adolphe Adam’s manuscript from the 1867 Parisian revival, preserved at the National Library in Paris, and she brought good order in the multitude of often wrongly attributed passages which were added to the score over the years. Designs and costumes were created by Roger Kirk.

No matter how serious the claims of authenticity and integrity, every attempt to reconstruct an old ballet needs to be a compromise between scholarly research and theatrical viability. Liška and his team were well aware of that. The famous pas d’action in the 2nd Act has little to do with Petipa, and even less with Adam. Happily it was kept with the existing bravura choreography by Samuil Andrianov and Vakhtang Chabukiani and music by Riccardo Drigo and others - although for some reason the 1st variation in the pas d’action is now performed by Conrad. The pas d’esclave with a variation attributed to Chabukiani and music by Prince Oldenburg is danced here by Gulnara, Lankedem and the slave Ali, a character that only appeared in a Soviet production from the 1950s. The variations for the odalisques in the 3rd Act were kept as well, although some have music attributed to Pugni.

In short, although Adam’s music features now more prominently and Petipa is more present than before, it was unavoidable that the Munich “Corsaire” remained something of a choreographic and musical patchwork, yet I find the result falling short of being truly revelatory. Of course, now we have a clearer view on who did what and when — although I gather this is, for the general member of the audience, of very little concern. The main issue however is that although one may well be able to reconstruct steps and music, a way to resurrect spirit and understanding required to perform them unfortunately still hasn’t been found. In spite of the enthusiasm of the Bavarian company I found most of this “Corsaire” rather dry and un-engaging. In broad lines the storyline is similar to the Mariinsky version, but the dramatics have neither the clarity nor the sweep and the wit of the Russian approach. The plot is still as inconsequential as ever, although unlike the Russians the Munich dancers weren’t really able to make us forget that. The pacing was often sluggish, especially in the 1st Act where virtually nothing is happening (we don’t even get a shipwreck), and several dances, like the forbans or the adagio in the pas d’esclave, were performed over-cautiously and in deadening slow tempi. Kirk’s luxurious costumes are tastefully done, but his sets lack evocative power and charm and don’t really draw you into the performance.

Adam’s music as played by the Bavarian State Orchestra under Myron Romanul wasn’t particularly revealing either and pales by comparison to Léo Delibes’ invention for “Le Jardin animé” (or to his own “Giselle.”) Lovingly reconstructed from the notations, more elaborate in patterns and grander in scope than in the existing versions (also featuring dozens of eager pupils from the Munich Ballet Academy), “Le Jardin animé” doesn’t turn this “Corsaire” in a classic of the same level as the other Petipa greats, at least it provides the best reason to go and see it.

As for the leading roles, Lucia Lacarra as Medora, all beauty, beaming smiles and sunny charm, lacked the aplomb to survive the many virtuoso passages unscathed. She was at her best in the 2nd Act romantic duet with Conrad, which now includes the charming Petipa bagatelle “le petit Corsaire” en travestie. Natalia Kalinitchenko did overall much better as Gulnara. When it comes to mere male bravura-display the show was pretty much stolen by the muscular Ali from Tigran Makayelyan, although Alen Bottaini equally cut a dashing and gallant Conrad. On the other hand I found Norbert Graf a dull Lankedem (and more than a few seas away from the droll portrayal by the Kirov’s Konstantin Zaklinsky), but Marlon Dino’s Birbanto was appropriately sinister.

At the same time, in the classy Prinzregentheater, the Mariinsky could be seen performing their “Giselle.” The production is still begging for more than a few shots of artistic direction as many dramatic details are blurred or obscured now to the point of becoming meaningless. The scene with the flower petals, Giselle’s malaise, the warning by Giselle’s mother etc are disposed of in such an off-hand way one wonders why they still bother with them at all.

Ekaterina Osmolkina and Andrian Fadeyev performed a disappointingly subdued 1st Act, short on drama and emotion. A fragile Giselle with a sensitive plastique and agreeable style, Osmolkina danced the role pleasantly enough, yet dramatically she hardly registered and her mad scene left me completely cold. To her credit, she didn’t find much response from Fadeyev’s Albrecht, who just went through the motions. It might be the current Mariinsky Albrecht-approach, but there was no way to tell what his intentions were, nor actually what he was doing there in that village. He might as well have left with the hunting party. Perversely, Islom Baimuradov’s Hilarion looked nobler than Fadeyev’s Albrecht and he seems to have been the only one that night who remembered that he needs to act. As a result he appeared by comparison to the others over the top, although at least he was fun to watch. Some bits of lively dancing could be seen with the two young soloists in the peasant pas de deux, Valeria Martinuc and Vladimir Shklyarov. Promising both, albeit mismatched in stature, and in Shklyarov’s case miscast as well, they no less danced their hearts out. Petite and pretty Martinuc must have been just out of school, looked tense as a bow string, but is bursting with talent. Shklyarov, too, is undoubtedly a fine dancer, but time and again he pushed too hard. This is “Giselle”, not “Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.”

The performance fared better in the 2nd Act, even though at the beginning the absence of the will o’ the wisps — one assumes, because of touring restrictions — made Hilarion’s frantic running around look ridiculous. Ekaterina Kondaurova is tall and has a beautiful stage presence, but Myrtha isn’t her role. She wasn’t the queen of the Wilis, she danced the steps without making impact. It has to be said that the staging requiring a hasty entrance doesn’t help her very much. Yet the ever excellent corps de ballet moved beautifully. There was a ravishing solo from Tatiana Tkachenko as Moyna and the two leads equally caught a second breath, finally creating a rapport by some truly splendid dancing. The ending however was again, emotionally, a total non-event. There was no sign of forgiveness; nor was there anything to forgive: they had just danced during the night and she left. That Fadeyev still threw himself upon the grave (in which Giselle didn’t disappear anyway) was shockingly inept.

It’s the minimization of “Giselle”, but it’s totally lacking in focus. By contrast a magnificent Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under Alexander Polianitchko gave a dramatic account of Adam’s score. It’s a shame though that the drama stayed locked in the pit and never made it to the stage.

Photos, both by Charles Tandy:
Lucia Lacarra in the "Jardin Animee" sequence
Lucia Lacarra and Tigran Mikayelyan

Volume 5, No. 14
April 9, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Marc Haegeman

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