Over the past two decades, the Mariinsky Theatre has become one of the leading centers of the arts not only in Russia, but in the world. Valery Gergiev, the almighty conductor and general and artistic director of the theatre, continues to expand his cultural empire in St. Petersburg with the iron determination of Peter the Great. Last year, he officiated at the grand opening of the Mariinsky II – a modern 2000-seat performance center – as an addition to the Mariinsky complex, which now comprises two opera houses and a concert hall.
Today the Mariinsky Theatre’s classical music and dance season in St. Petersburg offers a repertoire unprecedented in its scale, richness and scope. During the month of January there were 99 performances; of which 28 were ballets, mostly full-evening classics. Gergiev says the Mariinsky’s ultimate goal is to present up to a thousand performances a year – a feat worthy of a Guinness world record.
The Mariinsky boasts one of Russia’s finest opera companies. Maestro Gergiev has shaped the Mariinsky Orchestra into a first-rate musical ensemble, ranking among the top 20 symphony orchestras in the world, but it is for its superlative ballet troupe – with its unique classical tradition and style – that the Mariinsky Theatre is known abroad.
Watching the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake during the company’s recent annual engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, it is easy to understand why this ballet has long been considered Russia’s most important cultural export. With its handsome décor, gorgeous costumes and ingenious lighting, this production is a feast for the eyes; it’s hard to imagine a more thrilling and visually striking staging of the Petipa-Ivanov masterpiece. Swan Lake embodies the history and traditions of the Russian classical style like no other. Even its Soviet-era happy ending doesn’t seem to diminish the ballet’s powerful emotional impact. If this was your first time at a classical ballet performance, there is a good chance you will be hooked forever.
The formula for the success of the Mariinsky’s Swan Lake is simple. The love story between a beautiful young woman turned into a swan and a prince is told in a direct, traditional manner. There is no symbolism or hidden meaning here, no exaggeration or melodrama. The current staging is based on the 1950 production by Konstantin Sergeyev, who in turn reworked and modernized the original 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version, eliminating most of the pantomime and adding classical character dances.
The set designs by Igor Ivanov create the magical world of the fairy tale. In the first act, the stage is transformed into a picturesque garden with a stunning mountain view of Siegfried’s Gothic castle. The spectacular moonlit lake, hidden in a spooky forest, is a marvel. The lakeside scenes wonderfully render the ballet’s romantic, dreamlike atmosphere. The richly-tapestried medieval ballroom of the third act is no less impressive. Plus, there are hundreds of lavishly-designed costumes – this is one of the best-dressed productions of Swan Lake a ballet-goer will ever see.
The opening night leading roles were danced by the company’s principals, Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov.
The 28-year-old Somova is an established star of the Mariinsky Ballet. She graduated from the eminent Vaganova Ballet Academy in 2003 and was instantly given a green light to ballerina stardom by then-artistic director Makhar Vaziev. She made her debut in the Odette/Odile role at the tender age of 18 – one of the youngest dancers in the company’s history to get such recognition. (The excellent documentary Ballerina, by French filmmaker Bertrand Normand, offers a few glimpses of her debut performance.)
Somova is a tall, thin, long-limbed beauty. Her body is hyper-flexible, her extension super-high. She is dynamic and technically solid. Her dancing possesses a unique sense of freedom and wild spontaneity. At the same time, she has a tendency to disregard classical canon, distorting her line with careless position of her arms and legs. Her movements often lack elegance and fluidity. She is not your typical prima ballerina with an eloquent style and ethereal grace. Yet despite her flaws, she is a unique and endlessly captivating performer.
Somova’s willowy physique and super pliancy make her an ideal Swan Queen. Her Odette was delicate and vulnerable – a languorously poignant creature trapped in a swan’s body. Somova’s performance was utterly artless, devoid of dramatic pathos and mannerism. Her face hardly registered any expression. The movement itself was a reflection of her heroine’s feelings – her love and fear, anguish and loneliness.
As Odile, the black-fathered doppelganger of Odette, Somova turned into a fun-loving dynamo rather than a cruel, mysterious seductress. She delivered this role with no-nonsense attitude and refreshing panache, snapping into one carefree pose after another and hitting all the climaxes Tchaikovsky’s music and the choreography required. When she whirled herself into a vortex, unleashing a storm of double and triple fouettées, one wondered if the orchestra would be able to sustain her tempo. At one point, she got carried away and almost lost her balance but at the very last moment she toughened up, finishing her rotation with aplomb and a wink as if nothing happened. The audience loved it.
Handsome and handsomely built, Vladimir Shklyarov made a perfect Prince Charming. An embodiment of boyish elegance, he is technically strong and noble in manner. His reading of the role was pure and simple. Given how little solo dancing goes to Prince Siegfried in this production, Shklyarov still managed to leave a memorable impression.
A compact and high-spirited Vladislav Shumakov excelled in the role of the Court Jester – an enduring staple of this Swan Lake. It’s a prominent part and an opportunity for a virtuosic display of male bravura. Dressed in a black-and-white clown suit, Shumakov was turning and leaping with an admirable zest, entertaining both the court and the audience and quite often stealing the spotlight from His Royal Highness.
Andrei Yermakov as the evil magician Rothbart was high-flying and appropriately menacing; and the inimitable Suslan Kulaev gave an amusing rendition of the devoted and often tipsy Prince’s Tutor.
The Mariinsky corps de ballet, immaculately disciplined and focused, was at its peerless best, dancing with rare stylistic precision and authority. The character dances of the first act, completed with a soaring waltz; and the national dances of the third act, particularly a thrilling mazurka, brought a wonderful sense of theatricality and a festive flair to the production. Yet the ballet’s heartbeat belonged to the majestic flock of swan-maidens – a mesmerizing and constantly-changing formation of 24 ballerinas in white tutus that filled the stage during the lakeside scenes of Act I and Act III. These anonymous dancers ultimately distilled the emotional core of the story and won the audience’s hearts with their pure and exquisite performance and their selfless devotion to the art of classical ballet.