Sex traffic, turbans and tutus have made Le Corsaire, ballet’s free translation of Lord Byron’s piratical 1814 bestseller, a firm favourite since 1826. The story is tosh, the score we know today is a shameless salad of pretty tunes (eight composers and counting) but artistic directors cannot resist its bankable charms. English National Ballet will tour its 2013 version once again this winter. Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, the Mikhailovsky premiered a new staging of the Marius Petipa/Konstantin Sergeyev version by balletmaster-in-chief Mikhail Messerer.
The production is conceived, danced and played with breathless panache. Solos are crisp, sword fights are terrifying and the nutty scenario is danced through with the minimum of mime and mummery. Tatyana Yastrebova’s vivid silks flood the stage with colour but the thrifty projected scenery (no shipwreck! Are they mad?) is no match for ENB’s budget-busting designs, let alone the orientalist largesse of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi versions.
The adventures of Conrad, his beloved Medora and his faithless friend Birbanto offer endless pretexts for bravura solos and lavish ensembles. The Mikhailovsky’s account of the Jardin Animé, in which 30 girls in pink tulle shimmer through Petipa’s filigree geometry, is a measure of how far this company has come.
Shortly after Messerer first took charge in 2009 I saw him facepalm in despair as his mismatched corps de ballet lumbered through Giselle Act 2 (that will teach him to sit in a stage box). Hard work (and wholesale changes of personnel) have transformed them into a stylish, well-disciplined unit.
Here, Medora was Vaganova-trained Ekaterina Borchenko. Her sidekick Gulnare was Anastasia Soboleva who negotiated the capers of the harem with the good-humoured complaisance of a magician’s assistant about to be sawn in half. Alexey Malakhov’s strangely loveable Seyd-Pasha maintained this mood of lusty innocence as he patted his slave girls into pirouettes like a small boy spinning a top. Ivan Zaytsev’s dashing Conrad was well matched by Alexander Omar’s devilish Birbanto whose nuanced playing in the betrayal scenes lent a moment of tragic weight to this feather-light story before the lovers sailed into the sunset.