Monday, 21 October 2013

Spartacus - streamed live to Wakefield

Scene from the Bolshoi's Spartacus        Source Wikipedia

In my review of Don Quixote I compared the relationship between ballet streamed to a cinema and ballet in a theatre to that between hamburger and fillet steak (see "¡Por favor! Don Quixote streamed to Huddersfield" 17 Oct 2013). Well in today's HDTV broadcast of Spartacus to nearly 1,000 cinemas around the world we tasted some raw meat. Or at any rate steak tartare since the performance was brought to us by Pathé Live.

This show was an eye opener: a great score, great choreography and above all great dancing. There was spectacular athleticism from each of the male principals, sultry sexiness from one of the ballerinas and innocent tenderness from the other, a mighty duel and an even mightier battle.  It is a great shame that this ballet is not seen more often in this country.   It is an even greater shame that it is not in the repertoire of any British company.

I suspect that one reason for that is that Spartacus is perceived as a ballet of the Soviet era.  It was first performed by the Kirov (now the Mariinsky) in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1956 which was the year that Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest.  The production that we saw today was choreographed by Yury Grigorovich in 1968 - the year the Warsaw pact deposed Alexander Dubček.  The historical Spartacus has a special place in Communist mythology - though without the slightest basis in Roman history. He is said to have been one of Karl Marx's two heroes (see "Karl Marx's  Confession" 1 April 1865). The revolutionaries who very nearly took control of Germany at the end of the First World War called themselves The Spartacus League.

Very little is known of the historical Spartacus. He was a gladiator and he did lead an insurrection known as the Third Servile War between 73 and 71 BC but there is no evidence that he had a wife called Phrygia (which was a region of Anatolia) or that he worsted the politician and property speculator, Marcus Licinius Crassus, in single combat. The story upon which the ballet is based is a novel by Raffaello Giovagnoli and it bears as much resemblance to classical history as English history does to King Lear.

It is a very good tale, though, and for those who have yet to see the ballet this is the gist. Spartacus and his wife Phrygia are captured by the Roman general Crassus and brought to Rome as slaves. Spartacus is made to fight as a gladiator while Phrygia is forced into concubinage. In one of his fights Spartacus kills a friend. Overcome by remorse he stirs his fellow slaves into rebellion.  While rescuing Phrygia he confronts Crassus and challenges him to duel which Spartacus wins.  Though Crassus is at his mercy Spartacus lets him go. Humiliated at losing the duel, Crassus gets his concubine Aegina (another geographical name, this time an island near Athens) to infiltrate the rebel camp and distract the slaves while his soldiers creep up and ambush them. It is true that Crassus crushed the rebellion but he did that by cruelly disciplining his own soldiers and crucifying the slaves he captured along the Appian Way.

This story creates two powerful roles for the two male principals: Spartacus danced by Mikhail Lobukhin and Crassus danced by Vladislav Lantratov. There are two very different female roles - the proud, seductive, scheming Aegina danced by Svetlana Zakharova and the sweet Phrygia danced by Anna Nikulina who has a lovely smile on her web page but looked understandably the picture of misery in her role.

Having grown up during the cold war I had always thought that the Soviet Union was very straight laced. How, I wondered, could Grigorovich have got away with Aegina's seduction scene during that time.  That question  was actually put to the ballerina who first danced that role by the presenter, Katerina Novikova. She replied that she was told to tone it down the night the authorities were in the auditorium but then she could dance it normally.  The same question might also have been asked about Aram Khatchaturian's score. We in the UK know the adagio from signature tune for the TV series The Onedin Line but there is so much more to this lovely score parts of which reminded me of Bernstein.

Save for a break in transmission towards the very end this was a delightful transmission. I liked  the understated presentation with a single presenter and cameras in the slips and foyer during the intervals. It was a revelation to see Lobukhin limbering up with press-ups before the curtain rose and the shots of the audience in the foyer.  Seeing members of the audience in Moscow chatting or snapping one another with their mobile phones made us feel as though we were in the theatre.  And that is perhaps one of many reasons why people clapped tonight in Wakefield whereas they sat in stony silence in Huddersfield on Wednesday.  I think the Royal Opera House has lessons to learn.

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