Mikhailovsky Ballet Performs Important ‘Museum Piece’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Alexander Krein, Laurencia: Dancers and Orchestra of the Mikhailovsky Ballet / Valery Ovsyanikov (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 2.4.2013. (JPr)

Ballet in two acts
Stage version after Lope de Vega’s play FuenteOvejuna

Laurencia: Natalia Osipova
Frondoso: Ivan Vasiliev
Jacinta: Oksana Bondareva
Don Fernán (the Commander): Mikhail Venschchikov

Choreography: Vakhtang Chabukiani
Music edited by Dmitry Zubov
Revised by Mikhail Messerer


Laurencia. Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev
Laurencia: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev
Photo Copyright Mikhailovsky Ballet

‘Absolutely absurd!’ was the first comment about this Laurencia that I heard at the interval, and I think it might have been the reaction of many for lots of reasons. We had already witnessed a rather uncomfortable mix of the everyday story of country folk with added sexual assaults on women, due to a tyrannical ruler exercising his right of droit du seigneur on the locals’ innocent daughters. Laurencia is undoubtedly a ‘museum piece’ but it an important one and something all those interested in the history of ballet should see once, if given the opportunity.

The story was a typically populist one for pre-war (and post-war) Soviet audiences where the menfolk of a sleepy Spanish village are rallied by their women to overthrow the monstrous Commander. It would have resonated with its original audiences because of the Spanish Civil War and the imminent threat from Nazi Germany. The ballet is based on a seventeenth-century play by Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna. Don Fernán sets his sights on the beautiful Laurencia; her sweetheart, Frondoso, risks his own life to defend her and so the Commander’s men turn their attention to Laurencia’s friend, Jacinta, who suffers at their hands and is raped. Despite what happens to her friend all is happiness and joy for Laurencia and Frondoso, because she is so impressed by his bravery that they are to be married. In Act II, after the wedding celebrations – that includes the famous pas de six – Don Fernán comes back and has both of them taken away. Laurencia suffers the same fate as Jacinta but escapes and rouses the otherwise rather impotent townspeople to revolt. As an epilogue they attack the Commander’s castle, surround and kill him – and free Frondoso. Despite their travails (Frondoso is in ripped tights!) everyone lives happily ever after – though as with the ‘Arab Spring’ one wonders whether there will be democracy or someone even worse than Don Fernán.

During the overture we see a reproduction of an original poster on the front cloth, as well as, some grainy black-and-white film of Chabukiani himself, emoting. (This seems to come from the Bolshoi in the late-1950s when he danced with Maya Plisetskaya who was a wonderful Laurencia and they can be seen in this YouTube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2MQkVeysXQ.) As Alexander Krein’s music begins, the tambourines and castanets tell us where we are supposed to be as it is often a highly colourful pastiche of Spanish music in the more fun moments. It becomes more like the soundtrack to an Eisenstein film when things turn more dramatic, such as towards the end when there seems to be more historical film as the angry mob rampage through the castle and it is set alight. Krein’s score probably gets better playing than it deserves from the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s Orchestra under Valery Ovsyanikov.

When the frontcloth rises, Vadim Ryndin’s picture-box sets and often flamboyantly colourful costumes (reproduced from the Bolshoi production in 1956) give us an idealised version of a Spanish village. As it progresses the basic love story unfolds as if it is a revisionist Giselle where the heroine marries the gamekeeper, Hilarion, rather than a rich nobleman. That Duke, Albrecht, wants to seduce Giselle and then would desert her for his fiancée, Bathilde. Unlike the heroine of that nineteenth-century masterpiece (already performed in the Mikhailovsky’s London season) in Laurencia the girls do not die of disgrace, grief and heartbreak but both Jacinta and Laurencia get their own intense solo moments to display their anguish and shame. The latter shows she is made of stronger stuff because her evident resilience leads to the overthrow of the tyrant.

Ballet Master, Mikhail Messerer, has ‘exhumed’ Kirov dancer, Vakhtang Chabukiani’s original choreography, with just a few nods to the twenty-first century. Having made us understand Laurencia’s fickleness when she steps over the jacket Frondoso puts down for her to step on, later we see wonderfully intimate moments as she splashes water on him while doing laundry (it is that sort of plot) and her struggles to accept him when he lifts her. However any problem with Laurencia lies in Messerer’s otherwise reverence for Chabukiani. The situation is very similar to the wonderful stagings Nureyev made of the classics during his all too short life. He always gave himself more to do than was usual for the male dancer and was slightly less concerned with the ballerina. Frondoso has the greater variety of steps and they are relished here by Ivan Vasiliev. He jumps and spins, often with corkscrew twists so rapid that if you blinked you could miss them, but yet he always manages to land wonderfully softly. He looked a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn, and it was big, bravura dancing when sometimes you really did believe a man could fly. Compared to some of his photos in the programme, Vasiliev has recently become more muscular and it is already taking some effort to do what he does, but he is an undoubted young superstar.

The women are not so lucky and Chabukiani does not give them such a wonderful showcase. The early Act I dance for the peasant girls had such a bland symmetry of arm movement that synchronised swimmers obviously came to mind. Even the great Natalia Osipova, as Laurencia, suffers, because if she grand jetés once – in her now familiar way made famous by Maya Plisetskaya (see the clip above) – they added up to double figures by the end of the evening and if these were removed, along with the repeated sets of fouettés, there would be little left for her to do. What Osipova did, she did remarkably of course, though perhaps a little less of the ‘Aren’t I splendid!’ looks to the audience would keep her more in character, though I was totally convinced by her demands for revenge against the Commander by the end of the ballet.

Sabina Yapparova and Oksana Bondareva shone in the supporting roles of Pascuala and Jacinta and Mikhail Venschchikov as Don Fernán stomped around and chewed the scenery as a one-dimensional silent movie villain so successfully that he was subjected to some light-hearted pantomime booing at his curtain call. The rest of the company expended a lot of energy very willing but I will only remember Laurencia for the wonderful moments when Osipova and Vasiliev took command of the stage. This was truly ‘Living History’ – ballet style!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Mikhailovsky’s Ballet’s remaining performances at the London Coliseum and other ballet there go to http://www.eno.org/see-whats-on/see-whats-on.php.