Nadja Sellrup in Pontus Lidberg's 'Raymonda'.  Photo © Hans Nilsson

Nadja Sellrup in Pontus Lidberg’s ‘Raymonda’.
Photo © Hans Nilsson

Opera House, Stockholm, Sweden; December 12 & 14, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Act 3 of “Raymonda”, contains some of Marius Petipa’s finest choreography and is matched by a magnificent score from Alexander Glazunov. George Balanchine who knew a thing or two about music declared it “some of the finest ballet music we have.” Taken on its own, the act is one of those rare abstract ballets where sufficient trace of the original drama lingers to suffuse the work with mystery and sensuality.

Sadly the first two acts have never matched up. Petipa chose a minor novelist, Lydia Pashkova, for his librettist who rewarded him with a convoluted love triangle of a story: the beautiful Raymonda is courted by Crusader prince, Jean de Brienne. In his absence the Saracen knight, Abderakhman tries to win her hand but is defeated when the crusader returns. It is Nureyev’s version that is probably best known in the West. His Act 3 is in the repertoire of The Paris Opera and The Royal Ballet and it was his 1965 version for the Australian Ballet that established the new company’s reputation in Europe. In 2006 Stephen Baynes updated the plot for the Australian Ballet, creating a world of Hollywood glamour with a story that hinted at Grace Kelly’s romantic marriage to a Prince but while the story had its moments, choreographically it was not strong and was unfortunately overwhelmed by the high fashion designs.

At the Royal Swedish Ballet, Pontus Lidberg, working with designer Patrick Kinmonth, has now taken up the challenge. They found a novel link between Stockholm’s Opera House which reopened in 1898 and “Raymonda”, which premiered in that year. The opening act finds the dancers rehearsing the ballet on the opera house stage with a thin romantic thread drawn between the principal couple and the young male soloist to form the love triangle. The production opens with company class and continues as the principals rehearse the pas de deux. The ballet mistress, played with great presence by Joakim Stephenson, is a manipulative force suggesting the soloist also work with Raymonda. Later, in her dressing room, she dreams of dancing with the young man who has caught her eye. Coming back to reality she laughs it off and exits with her husband/ partner who offers her the red rose that the young man had dropped. The original Act 3 then becomes the second act.

Dragos Mihalcea as Jean de Brienne with the Royal Swedish Ballet. Photo © Hans Nilsson

Dragos Mihalcea as Jean de Brienne with the Royal Swedish Ballet.
Photo © Hans Nilsson

It’s a convincing idea with ostensibly the right ingredients, plenty of dance, a credible array of characters, plus the added thrill of sitting in the auditorium, viewing the stage from the performers’ perspective and peering beyond to another, painted auditorium and chandelier. The ballet skirts and mise-en-scène in nineteenth century dress give a period flavour, but Lidberg has kept the integrity of the classical technique in modern shape and style, but I was left wondering why I felt so untouched by the drama.

Lidberg is a man of the moment, one of his main strengths is his subtlety and the depth of his characterisations. However his “Raymonda” creates a unique set of circumstances. In the space between the extravagance of the ballet aesthetic which so successfully conveys the sublime extremes of emotion and the everyday moments in a rehearsal setting, he struggles to find a register to successfully convey the subtleties of attraction, jealousy or simply irritation.  His contemporary dance vernacular which speaks so eloquently from the heart is, in this context, not feasible and he is left with mimetic gestures.

Act 1 closes with little sense of danger: Raymonda’s dream is no more than a harmless romantic fantasy in pink tutus. Lidberg has to be admired for his intelligent, and successful, revision of Petipa-style choreography in this scene but for those of us who admire Lidberg’s own innovative dance, the value of the exercise is debatable. It was gratifying that the team has exorcised the enduring demon of the lascivious Moor, indeed the problem seems less the essence of the new story but how to interpret it for the opera house stage.

Act 2 is a joy. Kinmonth’s designs and costumes evoke Fabergé splendour and the music sparkles with Hungarian fire. Building from the tiny Swedish Ballet School juniors, the celebrations progressed through the ranks from ensemble to principals. In their splendid costumes the dancers gave spirited performances: notably the demi-soloists in the male pas de quatre and the female trio.

Nadja Sellrup was a convincing Raymonda, ably partnered by Dragos Mihalcea as Jean de Brienne. In an alternate cast, Nathalie Nordquist gave a rather subdued performance, technically competent but not engaging. Oscar Salomonsson however raised the stakes, dancing confidently and injecting a measure of excitement into the role of Jean. The role of the young soloist/Abderakhmen had two very persuasive interpreters in Vahe Martirosyan and Arsen Mahrabian, both Armenian trained and fine dancers, and I loved Jeannette Diaz-Barboza and Andrey Leonovitch, who led the czardas with imposing style. The Grande Pas Orientale is also included, and while less impressive choreographically it nevertheless gives Abderakhmen and a nubile pair of females, their share of the limelight. Of the soloists, Emily Slawski and Ágota Ecseki, both dancers with strong elevation, were on sparkling buoyant form.

In a moment of theatrical inspiration, the famous and most beautiful of ballerina solos now becomes an epilogue. The dancers have taken their calls; Raymonda is alone on the stage with her two men lingering on the periphery. It was a moment of pure poetry. In subdued golden light Nadja Sellrup was in her element, and the joy of watching her hold the stage in those final minutes, where Lidberg’s post-modern concept works absolutely, made up for the shortcomings of the evening and sent me home satisfied.