La Bayadere

Date: April 11, 2013
Location: Bucharest National Opera House, Bucharest.

Choreography by Mihai Babuşka, after Marius Petipa

Romanian National Ballet

Romanian National Opera (orchestra)

The first brick for the Bucharest National Opera House, which currently houses Romania’s national ballet company, was laid in the early 50s. By then, however, Romania’s ballet foundation has been set. In 1929, Vera Karalli, formerly of Ballets Russes, took over as ballet mistress and instilled its free-flowing vocabulary into Romania. La Bayadere is not a product of Ballets Russes, but the dancing reveals some of those roots. Bianca Fota seemed occasionally troubled by the precise steps of Nikiya, especially the difficult pique turns and multiple pirouettes. But her dancing was sensual and free-flowing, and when she arched back, as if to receive the sky, her body would curve like a silk scarf flying in mid-air. Gigel Ungureanu’s steps were confident and brisk, but neither the lascivious body curvatures of Fota nor the sweet smiles of Mihaela Soare’s Gamzatti seemed to engage him dramatically. In general, the ballerinas outshined the male dancers, as is the case for Romania’s another prized asset: gymnastics. The showcase triplets executed with good rhythm and smooth finish, but one wonders why the entire country of Romania, with its endless streams of fine gymnastic Olympians, had to rely on a Japanese trio of Rin Okuno, Sena Hidaka and Maki Shirase, good and dependable as they may be, to stage a ballet as quotidian as La Bayadere.

La Bayadere, Bucharest

La Bayadere, Bucharest.

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Nabucco

Date: April 6, 2013
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Production: Daniele Abbado
Location: Covent Garden, London.

This production was supposed to be Leo Nucci’s triumphant moment. Nucci was supposed to be the headliner, in a new Covent Garden production on the eve of Verdi’s bicentennial. As the anointed King of Babylon he would bow to no one except the Verdi gods.

And then Placido Domingo entered the fray. He would not only sign onto the production, but sign onto the title role. And it would be his role debut on the floor where he initially debuted, as a tenor, some forty years ago. Naturally, the press zoomed in on the Domingo storyline, casually forgetting that the King of Babylon has long been anointed. Nucci would still open the production, but all eyes focused on Domingo’s role debut a fortnight later. Poor Leo.

Poorer still, was Nucci’s performance tonight. His voice, assertive, brimmed with cracking firepower. His timbre properly flexed to reveal one of a relentless boxer before the interval, and one of a hapless aging man thereafter. In terms of projection, his ringing high notes easily caught at the end of the upper slips. When Nabucco challenges Abigaille to take the crown from him in “S’appressan gl’istanti”, his voice unleashed with atypical fury. Dramatically, however, Nucci could simply not fit into Daniele Abbado’s empty stage without looking like a lost impala in the vastness of Serengeti. The stage’s relative barrenness made the short and fit baritone look even less regal; without Verdi’s musical cues, his stage entrance as the King of Babylon would have been unnoticeable. Nucci’s body told the story of the production’s problems, as his hands seemed to relish but could not find a prop to hold onto. Nucci’s body showed up, but never inhabited the stage. He moved about, but never occupied. Domingo may not be a better baritone, but he would surely occupy the stage with better dramatics and authority. In the rest of the cast, Liudmyla Monastyrska provided a subtle but effective Abigaille, while Marianna Pizzolato offered good dramatics and reasonably adequate grasp of Fenena’s formidable passages. Vitalij Kowaljow, as Zaccaria, was comfortable in his range, and seemed much more ready and determined to make his stage presence known, even in Abbado’s precarious nothingness. Even for those opera goers who are not familiar with the plot line, the stage aura of Zaccaria and Nabucco foretold from the very beginning the latter’s eventual fall from grace.

Nicola Luisotti made the orchestra sound charming, while the warm chorus shone brightly and in one coherent whole. The stage actors – spending a majority of their time looking into the audience – rarely looked at each other on stage, perhaps because they did not feel they belonged there. And they shouldn’t, because the stage offered very little for them to react against. There is nothing wrong with a grey-shaded, simple production, but something must not be right if I almost felt like I paid a fortune to go to an un-staged concert version of Nabucco.

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera's Nabucco

Leo Nucci, in Royal Opera’s Nabucco.

La Bayadere

Date: April 5, 2013
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa

Royal Ballet

Orchestra of the Royal Opera (orchestra)

The Royal Ballet opens its spring season with La Bayadere, Marius Petipa’s Indian-themed gem. Alina Cojocaru, originally headlined as Nikiya, was forced to withdraw due to an unspecified injury. In her replacement was Roberta Marquez, the Company’s principal who appeared with a hint of nervous hesitation and the unease of a school child in her maiden school bus ride alone. Her physical body exposed more of that unpreparedness, especially when she was going from double to single pointe during the basket dance. But her sensual expressiveness saved her, and whatever the physical imperfections might suggest, her face seemed genuinely ready to receive Solor with an uninhibited abandon. As the evening wore on, the liberty with which Marquez afforded her body movements was in striking contrast to the picture-perfect but emotionally more subdued lines that Cojocaru is known to achieve. Opposite Marquez was Federico Bonelli, who attained exceptional forward speed in elevation without compromising the fluidity of his movements. As Solor, Bonelli seemed smarter and more calculated than the sort of man who schizophrenically flip-flopped between his two love interests. That leads to Marianela Núñez’s Gamzetti. Núñez was an incredible dancing wonder, who let loose her swelling stage influence with fiery pirouettes and confident jetes. Yet it was her sweet and radiant smile that won over the audiences, never mind any inkling of her as a potential steward of malice. The drum routine filled with energy, and showcased just how good the male corps at the Royal Ballet can be. The 24-strong shades moved gracefully and in unison, though as the evening moved to a perfect close, one wonders what if the Royal Ballet followed Bolshoi’s lead to file 32 dancers in an even more  luxurious rendition of the shades?

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet's La Bayadere

Roberta Marquez, in Royal Ballet’s La Bayadere.