November 23, 2014
The Corsair: a ballet view of Lord Byron’s poem
For the Herald
Lord Byron’s ultra-Romantic personality is still often evoked as a paradigm of those exaggerated but fascinating times both in his own adventurous life and in his complex and troubled heroes. But truth to tell, few read his books and we mostly know him from musicians that have been inspired by his subjects. Thus we have Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony and Schumann’s incidental music on the same character; Berlioz in Harold in Italy, about Childe Harold, and his overture The Corsair; Verdi’s operas Il Corsaro and I due Foscari; and Donizetti’s Marino Faliero.
The story of The Corsair as a ballet is long and involved. Byron’s 1814 poem about Conrad, audacious and seductive, was first made into dance in 1837 by François Decombe Albert with music by Nicolas Charles Bochsa and premiered in London. Two decades later the Paris Opéra’s direction decided to commission a ballet on the subject but with adaptations of the plot made by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges; Joseph Mazilier, the Opéra’s “maître de ballet,” was the choreographer, and no less than Adolphe Adam — the author of Giselle— wrote the music. It was first seen in 1856.
The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 instigated Émile Perrin, Director of the Imperial Opera Theatre, to ask Mazilier for a revival with several changes. As Adam was dead, Léo Delibes provided some new music, the lovely Pas des Fleurs that contains the Valse de Naïla, the overall score’s best moment.
But there was a parallel French-Russian development. Jules Perrot, of Giselle fame, made his own version based on Mazilier for Moscow’s Bolshoi, but asked young Marius Petipa to handle the choreography of Conrad. Petipa then created revisions of the whole ballet that same year, and then in 1880 and 1899, adding music by Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo (most of the great Pas de deux).
The Petipa version held the stage at the Mariinski of Saint Petersburg until 1928. Then in the Fifties Piotr Gusev made his own Petipa-based choreography and added music by Minkus and Prince Peter of Oldemburg (pas de deux of Gulnara and Lankedem). He also revised the plot trying to retain more of Byron’s original. This was premiered in 1955 at Leningrad’s Maly Theatre, and at the Colón in 1999 (first appearance of the work at this theatre).
Late in the Nineties Konstantin Sergueiev produced his own version, but the Russian audiences preferred Gusev. However, Sergueiev’s was adopted by the American Ballet Theatre, and Anna-Marie Holmes revived it at the Colón in 2011. Its presentation was very successful, with great praise heaped on the stage designs of Christian Prego, the costumes of Aníbal Lápiz and the lighting of Roberto Oswald. So much so that it became the only Argentine ballet production ever imported by the ABT (in 2013). And with cause, for it is indeed brilliant and beautiful, quite apart from the splendidly contrived boat at the start and the end. There’s colour, luxury, ambience and an old-style Oriental charm that suits the piece.
The three main pirates are Conrad, Ali and Birbanto (Scoundrel); the latter will be a traitor against Conrad. The principal girls are Gulnara and Medora, sold by Lankedem to the Pasha. There’s a serious undercurrent in this light ballet, notwithstanding the numerous divertissements (including the Pasha’s dream), for there are deaths, greed concerning the monetary value of the women slaves, and the wreck of the boat, although Medora and Conrad (both in love) make it to the coast in the final moments.
It’s certainly a display piece for traditionally oriented dancers, and the cast I saw did a very good job. I do find some of the choreography rather arch but there’s still much to enjoy. Due to a lesion of Juan Pablo Ledo, Federico Fernández had to tackle Conrad in all six performances; I saw the third and I found him in fine form. Lithe, tall and blond, Fernández is nowadays one of our best dancers; but there’s a deficit of personality in his corsair, which needs the temperament of a Nureyev for it is a role larger than life.
Curiously, the most difficult variations are danced by Ali, amazingly well taken by Alejandro Parente, who is well over 40 but keeps his stamina and physical condition intact, as well as his impeccable style. Dalmiro Astesiano, angular and slim, proved a convincing Birbanto. Gerardo Wyss handled well his slave merchant Lankedem. And Igor Gopkalo was a funny and ridiculous Pasha, quite un-Byronian but effective.
The girls: Karina Olmedo has had a long and attractive career as main ballerina. Her Medora showed great professionalism and firmness, though a trifle short in character. Gulnara was incarnated by the blonde, lanky Larissa Hominal with refinement and poetical sense.
Other smaller parts were correctly danced by young artists. The Corps de Ballet was large and impressive for its discipline and commitment.
Lidia Segni revived the Holmes version with reasonable accuracy; nowadays that work is much facilitated by videos, decades ago you had to rely on defective choreographic notation, memory and personal experience. There was the possibility of filming but it was rarely done.
Chilean conductor José Luis Domínguez led the Buenos Aires Philharmonic with seasoned ability. He and the Orchestra know that most of the music is purely functional though pleasant, but there are some interesting moments from Delibes and Adam and they were nicely played.