The Pharaoh's Daughter
Recorded live in 2012, this screening of the Bolshoi Ballet's latest production features an interview with artistic director Sergei Filin
Opium and ballet: it's a heady mix. Just over 150 years ago, one of the earliest creations by the great French/Russian choreographer, Marius Petipa, was a massively overblown piece of Egypt-inspired nonsense, overflowing with glorious dancing, extravagant staging and a cast of hundreds, all set to the sublime music of Cesare Pugni.
In narrative and stylistic terms, the unlikely storyline makes little sense, but The Pharaoh's Daughter is exactly as one suspects – an elongated, dizzying, opium-induced trip, adored at the time by the Russian populace but derided by the intellectual elite for its dubious idealogical messages.
It was premiered at the Imperial Bolshoi Kammeny Theatre in St Petersburg in January 1862, and reflected the current fascination with ancient Egypt, precipitated by recent archaeological explorations and the start of work on the Suez Canal just three years previously. Petipa's source was Théophile Gautier's fantastical gothic novel Le Roman de la Momie (The Tale of the Mummy), awash with exotic scenes and references to opium.
In the year 2000, the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte was invited by the Bolshoi Ballet to breathe new life into this long-neglected ballet à grand spectacle, now an exclusive cornerstone of the company’s repertoire.
Its most recent revival, with three of the Bolshoi's biggest stars – Svetlana Zakharova, Ruslan Skvortsov and Nina Kaptsova – in the lead roles, takes its place alongside better known titles in the second Bolshoi Live series.
This screening of a live performance of the Ballet in late 2012 allows balletomanes privileged access into the dressing rooms, the backstage areas, the orchestra pit, the foyers and the magnificent gilded splendour of the recently refurbished Bolshoi Theatre auditorium. I watch the screening in Queen's Film Theatre, but there are also screenings in Dundonald Icebowl and Odeon cinemas.
Over the course of three hours – including two 25-minute intervals, during which the cavernous stage undergoes miraculous transformation – a tale of passionate love and political intrigue unfolds. An English nobleman on safari in Egypt takes refuge from a sandstorm inside a pyramid. There, he and his manservant are invited into an opium ring by a group of nomadic tribesmen.
Within seconds of inhaling the potent substance, the murky interior of the pyramid takes on new life. A beautiful young woman emerges from a sarcophagus and the nobleman morphs from a bumbling chinless wonder into Ta-Hor, a handsome young Egyptian brave. The woman is Aspicia, daughter of the Pharoah, who falls headlong in love with Ta-Hor in spite of being already betrothed to her father's ally, the Nubian king.
Zakharov and Skvortsov are a stunning partnership as the inseparable lovers. Strong, elegant and effortlessly charming, Skvortsov's precise, muscular technique provides a warm counterpoint to the icy brilliance of his illustrious partner, a ballerina greatly favoured by Lacotte.
They progress from a cautious, perfectly controlled first pas de deux through a series of dazzling solo variations to a final duet that would melt the stoniest of hearts. In support, Nadia Kaptsova is as captivating and delightful as ever in the role of Aspicia's servant Ramze, even standing in for her at her wedding, to the evident horror of the prospective royal bridegroom.
In preserving the spirit and content of Petipa's all but lost original, this high-budget extravaganza revels in its own glorious stylistic mish-mash – frothy tutus jostle with embroidered Egyptian tunics; white clad fisherfolk with the nymphs and gods of the watery world beneath the Nile.
But even given the demands of convention, it still comes as a sharp shock to witness dancers, Kaptsova included, blacking up to play Nubian slaves and assorted rascals, their characters treated with contempt and condescension.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the Bolshoi Live experience is the series of in-depth interviews conducted on stage during the intervals. Here Lacotte reveals that it was Rudolf Nureyev who first approached him to recreate The Pharaoh's Daughter for the Paris Opera (of which Nureyev was then artistic director), but that the plans were put on ice because it was proving so expensive.
When the Bolshoi stepped in, he recalls the excitement of finding fragments of the original libretto and score, as well as documents relating to staging and design, all of invaluable help in the rebuilding process.
In 2006, the Bolshoi's artistic director, Sergey Filin – the victim of an horrific acid attack near his Moscow home on January 17, 2013 – gave what many believe to be the definitive performance in the role of Ta-Hor. There is nobody better qualified to sum up the ultimate demands made on the dancers by Petipa and, now, Lacotte, yet it is difficult to watch his interview in the light of recent events.
'It is hard labour,' he declares. 'The choreography is very difficult and the production is so big it needs almost the whole company to perform it. It is both expressive pantomime and dance. The lead dancers must make it all look effortless, and keep smiling. That's the hardest part.'