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October 30, 2011 7:18 pm
What is the real Petipa experience? Not many of us can claim to know, but Sergei Vikharev’s Raymonda, an attempt to reconstruct this 1898 ballet from notation, provides some answers. Premiered earlier this month, this lavish production for La Scala Ballet gives a taste of the grandeur the art form strove for under Marius Petipa in St Petersburg.
Raymonda is not an easy ballet to stage. With its big cast, difficult ballerina role and slight storyline, it has often been overlooked or changed beyond recognition, but Vikharev, who has reconstructed 19th-century ballets for companies round the world, has restored features long dropped from international productions. One of his great strengths is that he has complete faith in Petipa: the story is told as it was originally written, with extensive mime, and as a result everything finally makes sense. The White Lady, a non-dancing role, presides over Raymonda’s castle again, and the love story, so forgettable in most versions, benefits from the scale and unhurried rhythm of Acts I and II.
From the letters the chastely enamoured Jean de Brienne sends to Raymonda in Act I to the Vision scene – Raymonda apotheosised as a poetic ideal – medieval courtly love reigns supreme. The Saracen knight Abderahman is a threat to that ideal, and the structure of the ballet is plain: he is the obstacle that must be overcome before Raymonda and Jean de Brienne can be united. The choreography has been restored to its classical structure and simplicity, and at more than three hours, with the original painted sets and hundreds of reproduced costumes, the production is a true banquet: pomp, circumstance, and an entire world on stage to absorb over the course of an evening.
For La Scala Ballet, a company that has lacked a clear identity in recent years, this Raymonda is also a strong statement. The numbers involved are unheard of in modern ballet productions: dozens and dozens of dancers and children from La Scala Academy, all impeccably coached, flood the stage as knights, celestial maidens, cherubs or Saracens. With them Raymonda’s court is alive again, and the crisp soloist variations and committed character dancing prove the dancers are ready for more challenges.
La Scala still relies on international guest artists to lead its productions, however, and the first-cast Raymonda was a soloist from the Mariinsky Ballet, Olesya Novikova. With her doll-like face and long, delicate limbs, she is every inch the virginal heroine the production requires. With her angelic features and fawnlike limbs, she is every inch the virginal heroine the production requires. Her lines are exquisitely dainty throughout, her technique faultless, and the 30 small jumps landing on pointe Vikharev reconstructed, a long-forgotten feat, have won her much admiration. Stuttgart Ballet’s Friedemann Vogel was her knight in shining armour, and they shone with appropriate grace in their wedding Grand Pas.
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