The Mariinsky Ballet returned to Washington, D.C. for its annual engagement – the company’s 14th consecutive season at the Kennedy Center Opera House – with its full-length production of Raymonda, a ballet loved and cherished in Russia but somewhat lesser-known and rarely performed in its entirety in the West.
The last grand creation of Marius Petipa, Raymonda was born at the Mariinsky Theater in 1898. The famed ballet master was approaching his 80th birthday when he choreographed the ballet, teaming up with St. Petersburg’s prominent author Lidia Pashkova, who wrote the scenario, and the 32-year-old Alexander Glazunov, who composed the music. The result was a ballet which, like a rare, exotic flower, could only bloom under the right conditions.
The main problem with Raymonda is the lack of meaningful narrative. A medieval romance of sorts, it concerns a young noblewoman torn between two men – a heroic knight, Jean de Brienne, to whom she is betrothed, and a Saracen warrior, Abderakhman, who unexpectedly whirls into her life and sweeps her off her feet with his flaming passion. The suitors fight in a duel; the survivor (Jean de Brienne) gets the girl; and the sumptuous wedding crowns the whole affair.
This unsubstantial plot, however, is a mere pretext for a cornucopia of dancing in various manners and styles, from pure classical variations to traditional folk numbers, which the Mariinsky dancers delivered, for the most part, with conviction and masterly skill. From the assorted ensembles of Act I to the flamboyant Saracen dances and the fiery Panaderos of Act II to the famous Hungarian divertissement of Act III, the company’s corps de ballet, true to its fame, was in excellent form, dancing with enthusiasm and aplomb.
But Raymonda is a ballerina’s ballet. In fact, the ballet is chiefly celebrated (together with its lavish score) for its glorious leading ballerina role. Petipa created the central role for Pierina Legnani, a prodigious technician, who also originated the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. So the success of the whole production in no small measure depends on the ballerina who portrays the lady of the title.
On opening night, Oxana Skorik, as Raymonda, painted her character in cold, monotone hues, establishing little emotional connection with her partners, thus turning the ballet into a string of solos, duets, and ensembles (all impressively danced though). It seemed as if she didn’t believe in her heroine’s romantic dilemma, her interpretation lacked credibility and her love story never took flight.
Just recently promoted to the principal ranks, Skorik has an exquisite body and her technical skills are truly impressive. She had a few rough moments in the beginning of the ballet, but came into her own in the pure-dance final act, nailing every step. First soloist Timur Askerov delivered a somewhat muted portrayal of her fiancé; his partnering skills are still a work-in-progress, particularly for a ballet like Raymonda, which boasts some of the most intricate supports in the classical canon. The highflying Konstantin Zverev was admirable as the lovelorn Abderakhman, the only one in this love triangle capable of expressing emotions. Nadezhda Batoeva and Kristina Shapran excelled as Raymonda’s friends, dancing vibrantly and assuredly; and the charming Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova was superb in her variations.
The following day, starring in the second cast, Yekaterina Kondaurova was everything that Raymonda should be: enchanting, regal, loving and mysterious. Infusing the story with its meaning – and its drama – her dancing was one of those magnificent displays of ballet artistry that is justly associated with the best traditions of the company.
Kondaurova is an established prima of the company. She is 33 years old and has been dancing with Mariinksy Ballet since 2001, joining the troupe right after her graduation from the Vaganova Academy.
Everything in Kondaurova’s performance was exquisitely rendered. She skimmed through her numerous variations in the first act with a youthful bounce and radiant style; her lyrical solo with a translucent white scarf was especially captivating. This Raymonda was deeply in love and we instantly felt her tender affection to her beloved Jean de Brienne (the tall and handsome Danila Korsuntsev) from the moment she walked in to admire his portrait. Their duet in the Vision scene of Act I was a true marvel; so was the extended pas de deux during the third act’s wedding celebrations. Korsuntsev proved a solid, committed partner and Kondaurova gracefully floated in his secure arms in a series of stunning lifts and holds.
Yuri Smekalov infused the role of the lustful and menacing Abderakhman with the right amount of malevolence and passion. In his unrequited love, this Saracen chief was as poignant as he was pitiful, stirring both admiration and empathy.
On both nights, Konstantin Ivkin, Yevgeny Konovalov, Ernest Latypov and Vasily Tkachenko shone in the Pas de Quatre in the final act.
The Mariinsky’s staging of Raymonda incorporates revisions by Konstantin Sergeyev and additional choreographic fragments by Fyodor Lopukhov. It’s a handsome production, with appealing set decorations and tasteful costumes originally created by Simon Virsaladze.
Glazunov’s music, with its irresistible and luxurious melodies, is Raymonda’s greatest asset (and perhaps the main reason the ballet has survived the test of time). The Opera House orchestra gave a fine reading of the score, led by American-born Gavriel Heine, who is currently resident conductor at the Mariinsky Theater.