Esmeralda

'As the tangled tale of unrequited passion unfolds, their strong, trusting stage partnership blooms into a love affair with the audience'

It is a near certainty that the vast majority of ballet lovers hold in their hearts the ambition to be present at a live performance by the Bolshoi Ballet. Now, thanks to a creatively bold and technologically brilliant development, we are able to do just that – and without even stepping far beyond our own doorstep.

Beginning this month and running until June 2012, Bolshoi Ballet – Live in HD allows audiences in Ireland and across the world into a full season of work direct from its famous theatre in the heart of Moscow.

Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast is one of seven venues in Ireland receiving this simultaneous satellite feed, which admits audiences not only into the glittering auditorium, but also into the orchestra pit, the scene dock and even behind the curtain during intermissions, where the backstage crew orchestrate the complex routine of scene changes.

We are also given the freedom to wander through the foyer areas in the company of our Russian counterparts, and to stand outside in the maelstrom of traffic roaring around the gilded domes and concrete office blocks of downtown Moscow.

The State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia was established in 1776 and remains one of the country’s major cultural symbols. It is revered in the ballet world for its strict adherence to the classical technique and a repertoire largely devoted to the masterpieces of the Russian musical theatre of the 19th and 20th centuries.

A massive programme of renovation on the historic building is drawing to a close, and the next ballet in the series, Tchaikowsky’s Sleeping Beauty, will be the first production on the Bolshoi’s gloriously restored original stage.

But to begin at the beginning, Esmeralda is the first in the series. This three-act ballet was inspired by Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel Notre Dame de Paris, choreographed by Jules Perrot, with music by Cesare Pugni. It was first presented in London in 1844, then revised in 1886 by the great Russian choreographer, Marius Petipa, for the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre (better known as the Kirov).

Two leading members of the current generation of choreographers, Yuri Burlaka and Vasily Medvedev, have collaborated on this sparkling new version. High on their list of priorities was to celebrate the large number of colourful roles in Perrot’s original, and to showcase the stunning technical abilities of each member of the Bolshoi cast, from soloists to corps de ballet.

Thanks to the high definition pictures, superb sound quality and sensitive close-up camera angles, audiences are able to experience every nuance of Pugni’s sublime score – beautifully played by the Bolshoi orchestra conducted by Pavel Klinicjev – every fleeting expression on the dancers’ faces and the dazzling technique of these supreme artistes.

Prima ballerina, Maria Alexandrova, as Esmeralda is, quite simply, in a class of her own. A gypsy Esmeralda may be, but Alexandrova’s fine-boned features and imperious bearing bring a unique quality to the intriguing combination of folk and classical dance, punctuated by castanets and tambourines.

Her first encounter with Ruslan Skvortsov’s Phoebus, the handsome army captain who gives her his scarf and his heart, is a meltingly tender affair. As the tangled tale of unrequited passion unfolds, their strong, trusting stage partnership blooms into a love affair with the audience. At the final curtain call, it is hard to let them go.

Rising star Ekaterina Krysanova sets the pulse racing as Phoebus’s innocent young bride Fleur de Lys, devastated when she realises her betrothed has pinned his colours to another mast. She performs a heart-stopping series of pas de bourrees with incredible strength, finesse and concentration. It is matched only by Alexandrova’s swooning response to their marriage, which leaves her, quite literally, dead inside.

The gorgeous sets take us right into the heart of old Paris: to the stained glass splendour of Sainte Chapelle, the narrow cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter, the medieval Hotel de Cluny, out of whose tapestries emerges a stunning pas de deux between Diana, goddess of the hunt, and the huntsman Actaeon.

And over it all hovers the majestic façade of Notre Dame, the atmospheric setting for Hugo’s great novel, a wonderful ballet and this landmark performance.

Sleeping Beauty, the next in the Bolshoi Ballet – Live in HD series will be screened live at QFT on Sunday 20 November.