Teatr Wielki, Polish National Opera, Warsaw
May 28, 2015
In 1765, Casanova spent some months in Warsaw and Krzysztof Pastor has taken maximum advantage of this brief period in the rake’s notorious life to create a magnificent piece of ballet theatre. It combines characters from the theatre, particularly three rival ballerinas, and the court, notably the lovers of the ballerinas, giving opportunities for a slew of superlative roles for the Polish National Ballet, a company which seems to reach more impressive levels on each viewing.
Pastor is no stranger to working on a canvas of this size and his expertise is used to full advantage in the skilful arrangement of scenes and pacing of the drama. The action is often continued as the curtain falls on a scene, the characters moving front stage to continue the story before the curtain rises on the next scene.
Pastor also understands the importance of theatrical climax. He finishes the first act on a comic bedroom scene in the style of a French farce and he closes the ballet by first raising it to an elevated, almost spiritual plane before, in the final seconds, returning to the opera stage of 1766 as Casanova stands viewing his romantic liaisons sitting in the boxes: a commentary on his life.
Much of the action is a show within a show and Pastor has expertly managed this difficult situation so dancers can relate both to the courtly audience and the present day audience, in choreography that shifts focus to free itself from the proscenium arch constraints and move with ease to a traverse setting.
I doubt Casanova’s exploits would have received such a positive press today but in the eighteenth century, a well-born gentlemen of charm had the world (and particularly the ladies) as his oyster with little to curtail his appetites. True to form, he managed to overstep the mark and is ordered by the King himself to leave Poland after seriously wounding Count Branicki, lover of Mme Binetti, herself a former lover of Casanova, and one of the King’s favourites.
Vladimir Yaroshenko takes the eponymous role, a tall dancer with a fine technique his character is more strongly developed in the second act. A strong partner he ably manages the many pas de deux with his litany of lovers. Of the other major roles, Branicki, played by Maksim Woitiul, figures prominently. A jealous rival both in love and in social standing, he finally challenging Casanova to a duel. Throughout the ballet Woitiul, channels the anger into a fine performance punctuated by bursts of virtuosic fire which suit his explosive temperament. The duel, a sword fight, was intriguing as passages in slow motion alternated with real time action.
The three rival ballerinas are a gift to both choreographer and interpreters. Pastor defines each through distinctive movements and style. Aleksandra Liashenko as the coquettish Mme Binetti, newly arrived with partner Le Picq, (Robin Kent) has had a previous amorous encounter with Casanova and initially rejects his new advances before she inevitably forgives him and tumbles into his arms. The role draws on both Liashenko’s fine technique and her keen dramatic qualities, notably a sense of comedy which Pastor exploits to the full. Earlier this month Aleksandra Liashenko and Maksim Woitiul were named as Poland’s best dancers of 2014, a well-earned accolade for the pair.
Yuka Ebihara, as the reigning prima ballerina, Mlle Gattai thoroughly enjoy playing the badly behaved diva while Mlle Casacci, Aneta Zbrzeźniak, the most decorous of the three, slowly manoeuvres herself into poll position through the machinations of her lovers. The ballet within the ballet, Judgement of Paris, could not have been a better choice: three goddesses fighting over the apple to be given to ‘the fairest’.
The joy of Pastor’s choreography is that while firmly rooted in the ballet tradition – and he is a choreographer who loves pointes – the language is always of the moment and never a Petipa pastiche. It is also an expressive language that eloquently define mood and character. The occasional pose gives a period flavour as do the costumes designed by Gianni Quaranta in exquisite 18th century detail.
The Princess Izabela, one of Casanova’s rare amorous disappointments was danced with grace and dignity by Maria Żuk, a dancer who holds the stage with ease. Patryk Walczak had the energy and virtuoso skills to make a very convincing Tomastis, the theatre manager, while Paweł Koncewoj, as Campioni, ballet master and friend of Casanova had the unenviable task of protecting him from his own worst excesses. It is a prominent part but with little glory and Koncewoj gave a sterling performance. Similarly Viktor Banka as Count Moszyński, made a dominant character as head of the freemasons. Pastor gives a scene to Casanova’s meeting with this important group emphasising the power struggles of the time and giving the male ensemble a chance to establish themselves.
Another innovation was the inclusion of several operatic arias. Joanna Woś, as Mlle Ristorini, a soprano is neatly incorporated into the action either as an entertainer at the court functions or part of the theatre rehearsals. Much as a ballet interlude has often formed part of traditional opera, this was a successful amalgamation of opera and ballet in the historical setting. She had a delicious moment as a very Mozartian maid, unnecessarily dusting the bedroom while observing the shenanigans of the occupants.
The final scene in the convent and the Epilogue makes a strikingly original ending. The wounded Casanova is given refuge by Prioress, Marta Fielder. His predatory instincts are not totally subdued but he does reach a point of reflection. To the crystalline notes of the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto nr 21 the ballet moves to another sphere. White robed women on pointe form a heavenly choir and Casanova dances with them now free from emotional attachment. It is a courageous concept and makes brilliant theatre.