Les Saisons Russes of XXI Century – Firebird, Scheherazade – London

Nikolai Tsiskaridze in <I>Scheherazade</I>.<br />© M. Logvinov. (Click image for larger version)

Nikolai Tsiskaridze in Scheherazade.
© M. Logvinov. (Click image for larger version)

Andris Liepa’s Les Saisons Russes of XXI Century
The Firebird, Schéhérazade

London, Coliseum
18 July 2013
www.eno.org

It‘s been two years since Andris Liepa’s Russian Seasons troupe brought their Ballet Russes themed programmes to the Coliseum, and there are some marked differences. In 2011, Liepa spent much time in his introductions to each work from the stage in thanking his sponsors profusely. This time there are no mentions of sponsors. There is now no orchestra in the pit and not even a printed programme available. Liepa’s sister, Ilse Liepa, was to have starred in a newly-created work, Cleopatra, whose subject was the creation of the work of that name for Ida Rubenstein in 1909. However, her repeated recent knee operations made this impossible, and the programmes have been considerably rearranged. All of this is inauspicious.

Instead of Patrick de Bana’s new Cleopatra we have Liepa’s production of The Firebird, which he has previously presented here, with a very similar cast to its last visit. The corps and soloists are from the Kremlin Ballet, as is the Firebird herself, Alexandra Timofeyeva, returning to the role. She communicates her bird-like qualities well and uses her darting eyes to good effect.

Her prince is Ilia Kuznetsov, striding about the stage, confident and assured. In its earlier visit this had appeared an honourable production, more or less the same as the version Liepa has set for the Mariinsky. The recreated opening backdrop is colourful, the costumes for the principals opulent. The twelve dancing princesses however suffer from some of the most unbecoming blonde wigs ever seen on a stage, and the costumes for the corps look amateurish.
 

Alexandra Timofeyeva in <I>The Firebird</I>.<br />© Kristyna Kashvili. (Click image for larger version)

Alexandra Timofeyeva in The Firebird.
© Kristyna Kashvili. (Click image for larger version)

The production does have some lovely details, particularly at the close as we see the backcloth with the great city rising as the Prince leads his new bride triumphantly away. But that is to the closing moments of Stravinsky’s great score, and it is here that the production fell badly short in being danced to recorded music. It wasn’t just that the (uncredited) recording seemed to suck the life and energy out of the corps, but the sound was very poor, detail lost in a fuzzy haze and yet with sudden teeth-grindingly strident moments.

The atmosphere was rather subdued, in part down to poor attendance. Although the balcony had been closed, the rest of house seemed less than half full, and the audience not so responsive. Usually these Russian Seasons programmes are well attended by the large Russian community in London but not so this time. Perhaps they are saving their money for the Bolshoi (seats in the stalls here were £75, which is asking a lot for a production without an orchestra).

The second item on the programme might have been expected to be more of a draw for them. This was Liepa’s production of Scheherazade, starring Yuliya Makhalina of the Mariinsky as Zobeide and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, formerly of the Bolshoi, as the Golden Slave.

Makhalina is now in her mid 40s and it is a long time since she has appeared here in London. However, she still proudly displays a washboard stomach, killer cheekbones and a supple back. In fact she looks in better shape than Tsiskaridze, who is not flattered by his midriff –revealing costume.
 

Nikolai Tsiskaridze in <I>Scheherazade</I>.<br />© M. Logvinov. (Click image for larger version)

Nikolai Tsiskaridze in Scheherazade.
© M. Logvinov. (Click image for larger version)

It is hard to agree with Liepa’s assessment in his introduction that this is one of the great ballets. The subject matter might have been exotic in 1910: the Ottoman Empire still existed then. But this story – the faithless wife bribing the eunuchs to let in the hunky mail slaves into the harem for an orgy while her husband is out hunting – seems dated now and hard to lift above cliché. The best argument for it might be the score by Rimsky-Korsakov, but here again it suffered from the indifferent sound quality. The designs are credited as recreations by Anna Nezhnaya and Anatoly Nezhny of the Bakst originals but look thin and garish.

Both protagonists work hard in the attempt to build up a head of steam but it’s not easy. Makhalina has a Joan Crawford style hard glamour about her. However the pas de deux feels overlong. Only towards the end of the work does Tsiskaridze finally find the form to match his reputation in a series of pirouettes delivered with speed, panache and a knowing grin.

An apologetic Liepa promised to return for a week next time and bring the new Cleopatra with him, but this was an unsatisfying evening in its current form. He needs more resources to present the works sympathetically.
 

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