La Bayadère is returned to the Covent Garden repertory in Natalya Makarova’s handsome production, with Samaritani’s opulent décors and Yolanda Sonnabend’s no less opulent costuming. It is a staging that makes sense in editing Petipa’s text (as we know it from a century of St Petersburg recensions) and it rounds out the story by paying homage to the long-lost final act where the wicked were punished and the temple-dancer and her weak-willed beloved were re-united in an after-life. This is what 19th-century ballet expected and Makarova cunningly gives us – by way of an improved apotheosis, a temple collapsing in a rain of masonry, a massive statue of the Buddha disintegrating, which Covent Garden’s technicians have newly devised with projections and lots of dry ice.
So far, so admirable, though I still deplore the orchestral flummery imposed on dear old Minkus by John Lanchbery’s florid orchestration. But, as too often with our national ballet, the first night resembled a dress rehearsal. Ensembles looked frayed at the edges, flurried; characterisations went either too far or not far enough (Gary Avis’s High Brahmin is almost too high), and casting had fallen victim to injury. Marianela Núñez appeared – as scheduled – as an admirably understood, splendidly danced Gamzatti, a combination of classic bravura and devious motives, while Roberta Marquez replaced Alina Cojocaru as Nikiya in the arms of Federico Bonnelli’s Solor.
There are aesthetic resonances to the role of Nikiya which are part of the fabric of the text in Petersburg. A “holy ballet” said Tamara Karsavina, and the finest interpreters I have seen – Makarova herself, Altynai Asylmiratova, Viktoria Tereshkina – have made us aware of a spiritual force, something transcendent in the performance style, in the very mechanics of the dances in the Kingdom of the Shades scene, which speak of an ecstatic state born of Petipa’s sublimities and the truths implicit in dedicated classical interpretation.
None of this bothered us on Friday night. The cast danced according to their lights, and on entering the auditorium of the Royal Opera House I noticed a smell of frying fish. Maybe those responsible for the standards of this event are turning their hands to the catering trade.