A year ago at Milan's Teatro alla Scala the ballet company scored a hit with its restaging of that difficult piece Raymonda. The ballet's improbable story, with a lack of obvious dramatic push, can make it seem lacklustre. Therefore when Rudolf Nureyev's version for Paris hit the stage in 1983, with Jean Guizerix's brilliantly macho Abderam making poor Yvette Chauviré quake with fear, the ballet really came alive, and the company danced till they dropped.
La Scala's ballet director Makhar Vaziev (and ex-director of the Mariinsky) took a different approach and asked fellow Russian Sergej Vikharev to try and recreate the spirit of Marius Petipa's original 1898 production. Vikharev, who has become a specialist in such recreations, wanted to go back to the original set and costume designs too, and the result was magnificent. Like seeing an old ballet print come alive, the vivid colours of the costumes stood out against the duller beige of the painted drops: necessary under the low lighting conditions of a century ago, but dazzling with today's banks of spotlights. The stage was awash with trumpeters, cherubs, knights, and Saracens. Very satisfying.
So a year later, the production is back with Olesya Novikova and Friedemann Vogel reprising their roles. How exciting, I thought, to see how it's all come together after some of the shakiness of the première something easily forgiven seeing that the ballet comes in at over three hours. Well this time it wasn't all that exciting. Expecting to appreciate it more after having also seen the filmed version, I was surprised to find myself distracted during the first act. It is long at over an hour, and, frankly, there isn't all that much dancing. There are lots of gestures, walking up and down, and restrained courtly dances, but nothing to grab the attention. Novikova lights up the stage during her numerous solos, but it isn't quite enough.
Also I was loving a little less some of the bizarre headgear and strange colour combinations, as though an evil dresser had mixed up all the costumes at the last minute. Some of the various pages and chamberlains looked just plain silly with their unflattering tights and tunics. The costumes for the corps however, especially in the last act, are sumptuous. Acts 2 and 3 come to the rescue with much more dancing, and finally in the last act – the famous Raymonda's Wedding – poor Vogel gets a chance to show what he can do.
Maybe the enthusiasm of a year ago was the novelty. Unwrapping a new toy. Well it seems that its initial appeal has worn off somewhat, and I'm already a little bored with this plaything: I want it to do more. This recreation is an interesting exercise, but I doubt many would return to see it season after season like other narrative ballets, yet it must have cost a fortune in cloth alone and with all those extras on stage the wage bill will be astronomical. La Scala didn't used to worry about that sort of thing, famously putting on opulent new productions which, after six or so performances, were never seen again. Well the times they are a-changin'.
Though ultimately glad that La Scala succeeded in mounting this production, maybe it's now time to get the scissors out and trim it a little. Including some of those costumes!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
This is exactly my impression when I saw the production last Tuesday. I was so much disappointed, only Olesya Novikova filled the scene ( and my heart) with her excellent technique and interpretation-
Ah, are we back at recycling 20th century ballet cliches again? Rather than perceiving Petipa’s Raymonda, a genuine piece of art, as a new toy, it would have been wise to study the filmed version better and marvel at Petipa’s steps and theatrical ideas, which makes you richer with each viewing. Gramilano seems unable to shed his 20th century views, views which continue to block a full appreciation and understanding of Petipa and his work(s). His ballets were meant to keep one as long as possible entertained, for there was neither radio nor television at home and the movie theatre was still some years away from existence in 1898 (the year of Raymonda’s creation). So the acts were long. The act-wise build-up in dancing was no accident, as is suggested here, but a skillful device of Petipa’s that he used in a fair amount of ballets. As to male virtuoso dancing, it is a given fact the surviving Petipa ballets provide less of that than we have grown accustomed too, so there’s no need to blame that on this production. I too have nothing but praise about Friedemann ‘Jean de Brienne’ Vogel’s talent, but this is what Raymonda has to offer him. Period. If the amount of male dancing here doesn’t suit you perhaps Nureyev’s is your hustle, but in this humble opinion the less said about his muddy, downright unmusical and childish treatment of Raymonda the better. Also, the Scala administration deserves ungoing credit for going all the way with this reconstruction, and that doesn’t include taking scissors and cut from the costumes whatever doesn’t suit a present-day taste. So let’s be mature about this and stop pressing a 20th century mold against 19th century works: If you don’t like a Rembrandt, go see a Picasso or a Jeff Koons.