Sunday, January 06, 2008

An abundance of sumptiousness

Put together an Indian story, music written by a Czech (at the time Greater Austrian) composer (Minkus) in St Petersburg, a Russian choreographer (Petipa), the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, a Japanese prima ballerina (Miki Hamanaka) and what do you get? The sumptious fairytale production of 'La Bayadère', just premiered in Vilnius.

It's a wonderful production, and has everything a 19th century producer might have imagined about India. Luscious and lovingly painted sets, stunning costumes revealing at times the emaciation (at other times Not The Emaciation) of the dancers, Mowgli moments (if the costumes for the jungle men, were not likely to be the original costume design, I would swear they were straight out of Jungle Book, the movie), opportunities for the ballet school pupils to take part and get their faces painted black, an elephant and parrots, quite nice music fairly well played (the violin solo in the third act was wonderful!).

A bayadère is an Indian temple dancer. I thought that meant that she'd be all chaste and virginal, but apparently not. This one loves a young prince and he loves her; he is promised to another woman and seems not averse to that woman, too; in the middle of it is the high Brahmin (the head of the temple) who loves the bayadère, too; the bayadère is distraught when she discovers that arrangements are made for her young prince and the other young woman; whose father arranges for the young woman to be dealt with, after which her young prince dreams of her (in an opium haze - would That Sort of Thing be allowed nowadays in a stage show?).

Miki Hamanaka was outstanding as the bayadère. She is so different from our Egle Spokaite, and it would have been interesting how she would have interpreted the role. Hamanaka is so fragile (no wonder she was being lifted up all the time; when she was you'd think she would break across in the middle - it was quite a relief to the audience when in the last act she wore a costume that covered the very visible bones of her ribs). Her dance when she discovered that her dream prince was spoken for was heart-breaking. The High Brahmin was very funny; dressed in a long red frock with a diamond encrusted flower pot on his head, he was all dramatic gestures and waving of arms - he looked really scary.

When you go to see the show you need to put out of your mind anything you know or have seen on TV about India, its casts and its temple dancers. Remember that this was written in cold St Petersburg in 1877 when there were no films, no jet travel and little access to Indian sounds. So, think fairytale because that's what it is. Bayadères were a bit all the rage at the time; a group of these had visited France from India in 1835, Taglioni had written a ballet-opera about them (The God and the Bayadère), and even Johann Strauss (which one?) had written the Bayadère Polka, a dance probably most unlike anything a real bayadère would ever perform. Similarly Minkus music has nothing Indian about it, apart from a few augmented seconds in the Mowgli moments.

Basically it's a standard romantic ballet, with the pas de deux, and the scene at the court where lots of different dancers show their steps (think Swan Lake, Nutcracker and all the others). Actually the show could stop at the end of the second act. The final act, the dream scene, is straight out of Swan Lake, costumes, dances and all (and in fact Petipa produced that only a year before this one), and I wondered if Petipa thought that 'this is not long enough, please write something more, Mr Minkus'. Actually, it turns out that there was a fourth act involving the destruction of a temple, but that has been dropped roughly since the Russian revolution. With three acts it's quite long enough!


Anni said...

Is this the same Bayadere that will be in Berlin at the Staatsopera in February?

Also, you may not have seen Alex Ross's piece in the Observer yesterday, reprinted from the New Yorker, about web sites for classical music. It doesnt seem to have been posted on the Observer web page, but can send you all the web sites if you are interested as I have just summarised them for my daughter.

Love the new blog also. Though based in UK I also work in Vilnius and Tbilisi from time to time.

violainvilnius said...

Hi Anni, good to hear from you. We nearly met in Tbilisi one time, no?

Bad news on the Bayadere front from the Staatsoper Berlin, see here http://www.staatsoper-berlin.org/journal/detail.php?id_text=54942&id_language=1&bereich=staatsballett&aktiv=news; it seems they cancelled it and replaced it with something else. You can either go to these performances, or return your tickets for a refund.

Need to look out for the Alex Ross article; I'm reading his book 'The Rest is Noise' on 20th century music just now. Very readable so far, but another reader told me it gets hard later on....

Take care!