When the Bolshoi Ballet first performed at the Royal Opera House 60 years ago (an occasion some of those present at this year’s return engagement remember with awe), Nikolai Fadeyechev was a leading dancer. Now his son, Alexei Fadeyechev, a former director of the company, presents a new production of Don Quixote to launch the 2016 anniversary season.
First shown in Moscow in February this year, the revised version returns the Bolshoi’s Don Quixote to the ‘original’ choreography (or so it is claimed) by Marius Petipa, as edited by Alexander Gorsky: three other Soviet era choreographers are also credited in the programme. No matter – this latest production still contains a wealth of character dances as well as familiar classical variations. It is less preposterous than before, rather more dignified, but great fun.
Fadeyechev keeps Don Quixote himself centre-stage as far as possible, even though the ballet’s love story isn’t about him. An antique book – Cervantes’ novel, projected onto a front cloth – reminds us that the Don is a literary figure whose adventures are inspired by his reading of tales of chivalry. Tall Alexei Loparevich is a genial, if bewildered Don with an exceedingly long lance and a small, fat, illiterate squire, Sancho Panza (Roman Simachev). They travel on foot, alas, with no horse or donkey to ease their journeys.
After a brief prologue, they arrive in sunny Barcelona, teeming with merrymakers. Valery Leventhal’s sets are all gorgeous, as are Elena Zaitseva’s costumes – long gone are the dubious designs of Soviet-era productions. The opening night was slow to warm up. Kitri’s big entrance went for nothing: Olga Smirnova didn’t light up the stage, unlike Natalia Osipova in a previous production, or the even more fabulous Maya Plisetskaya. (See her life-affirming entrance on YouTube: Maya Plisetskaya – Kitri’s Entrance in Don Quixote). Her Basil, Denis Rodkin, a handsome rogue with a fine head of hair, knows how to engage an engage an audience, even if he and Smirnova had little chemistry between them.
The staging took off once the corps of townspeople got going at an exciteable tempo, feet and fans flying. The toreadors, led by Espada (Ruslan Skvortsov), added swirling capes and carefully placed daggers: their macho posturing was markedly less camp than usual. The Bolshoi’s orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin, did Minkus proud, providing the vitality the leading soloists lacked. Smirnova may be a superb classical ballerina but she is miscast as Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter. She communicates no joie de vivre, no sense of belonging to a down-to-earth community of working people. She came into her own in the vision scene and the famous Don Q pas de deux, but she’s not a dancer who delights in daring lifts or look-at-me pirouettes.
Kitri and Basil are sidelined in Act II by divertissements in the tavern scene and the gypsy encampment, performed with genuine enjoyment by the Bolshoi’s folk-dance specialists. Castanets click and rattle on stage and in the pit for more-or-less Spanish numbers featuring huge swirling skirts and flamboyant backbends. A male bailarin combines ballet and zapateado footwork. In between the fandango and bolero tributes at the inn comes a ‘jig’, more Russian than Spanish, for three jolly drunkards and a bouncy good-time girl (Anastasia Gubanova). If this is by Minkus, he could have worked in a music hall – not that I would ever mock Minkus.
Topping them all comes the sultry solo by Anna Antropova in the gypsy camp, where tambourines take the place of castanets. She suffers and smoulders, brandishing the biggest skirt and deepest backbends ever. By now, Kitri has disappeared to change her costume for the vision scene. Don Quixote becomes bemused by the gypsy king’s entertainment, mistaking the players for enemies and the windmills on the backdrop for giants. Laid out to rest by faithful Sancho Panza, the Don dreams of a bevy of dryads in a beautiful birch forest.
He drifts amongst them, always visible because this is his fantasy. Smirnova, as his Dulcinea, is rivalled by Yulia Stepanova as Queen of the Dryads, both flourishing the highest extensions they can fit into the music. Daria Khokhlova is a nimble Cupid, cavorting among a well-drilled cohort of slender-limbed nymphs in pale blue tutus. Delicious. When the Don reluctantly awakes, he is swept off to the visiting duke’s castle as guest of honour.
It’s a Moorish Andalucian castle with twisted pillars and an ornate ceiling. Courtiers in white, tutu-clad ballet girls and yet more Spanish dancers celebrate the wedding of Kitri and Basil. The happy couple are no longer recognisable as working-class locals rejoicing in their good fortune. Their grand pas is danced in the grandest of manners, assisted by two immaculate soloists, Anna Tikhomirova and Ana Turazashvili. Rodkin managed the one-arm lifts with ease, as well as his own dashingly virtuoso solo variations. Smirnova preferred not to risk sustained balances or multiple fouettés: a naturally legato dancer, she took her variations at speedy tempi, dazzling the applauding audience. Other Kitris are to come. Meanwhile, the Bolshoi’s Don Quixote continues to delight for the exuberance and skill of its range of performers, with the corps de ballet and demi-soloists taking pride of place.