BWW Reviews: Partly First Class, Partly Frustrating RAYMONDA at the Artscape Opera House
16 years since it was last seen on stage in Cape Town, Cape Town City Ballet has brought RAYMONDA back to the Artscape for a short winter season. It is a beautiful production of a ballet that is infamously light on narrative and heavy on dance, which makes for an evening of some first class performances and some frustration when it comes to experiencing the piece as a complex and compelling piece of storytelling.
RAYMONDA premiered in 1898 with choreography by Marius Petipa to a lush score by Alexander Glazunov. This particular version was created by Norman Furber for the CAPAB Ballet Company in 1980 and has been recreated by Elizabeth Triegaardt from videos taken during the 1980s and 1990s. The Furber scenario departs somewhat from the original. In this version, Raymonda (Hikaru Kobayashi/Laura Bosenberg/Kim Vieira) is still betrothed to Jean de Brienne (Valeri Hristov/Dirk Weyershausen/Daniel Szybkowski), who is off fighting in a war for the King of Hungary (Johnny Bovang). The Saracen knight of the original ballet, Abderahman, becomes a mystical sultan, Abderam (Xola Putye/Trevor Schoonraad/Ivan Boonzaaier), who like his equivalent is besotted with Raymonda.
More dramatic changes follow. In the original, a spirit known as the White Lady brings about an elaborate vision in which Raymonda is shown the fantasy of the life that awaits her with Jean and subsequently awakens to see the face of Abderahman, who then attempts to abduct her. (I have sometimes wondered to what extent this fantasy sequence influenced Agnes De Mille's dream ballet in OKLAHOMA!, the 1943 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which similarly shows its heroine caught between two opposing suitors. While vision scenes are prominent in ballets of the period, they are more often than not from the male perspective. That this vision is from Raymonda's perspective makes me wonder whether there is some link here.) In this version, the mysticism is provided by Abderam himself, who conjures up a vision of Jean, which lays the foundation for an exquisite piece of choreography in which the pair vies for her affections. This being a vision, Abderam has the upper hand and it is not long before he abducts Raymonda, taking her to his palace with the suddenly returned Jean in hot pursuit.
The second act of the ballet takes us to a location that remained unseen in the original ballet, Abderam's harem, where a second love triangle develops. Although Raymonda makes her distaste for Abderam clear, his hitherto favourite concubine, Semiramis (Angela Hansford/Lauren Rogers/Kirstel Jensen), is consumed by jealousy as she is pushed to the sidelines in favour of Abderam's new conquest. Jean arrives to rescue his beloved, challenging Abderam to a duel that proves, as in the original, to be fatal for the sultan. This leads us back to more familiar territory for the final act of the ballet, during which Raymonda and Jean's wedding is celebrated.
The first act of Cape Town City Ballet's exquisitely costumed RAYMONDA is delightful. In the title role, Kobayashi establishes herself as a graceful and virtuous young woman, thanks to her light performance of the choreography. She develops her almost ethereal delivery of the steps as the ballet progresses, climaxing with a wonderful interpretation of the solo derived from Petipa's original in the third act.
Other highlights of the first act include the dances for Raymonda's sisters, Maria (Rosamund Ford) and Sophia (Kirstel Jensen) and brother, Robert (Jesse Milligan), which were executed with clean technique and strong footwork, as well as a sense of pure joy that, in fact, characterises the tone of Act I on the whole. In fact, there were moments in the first act of RAYMONDA when I wondered whether this would be my favourite of the classical ballets that I have seen the company perform.
The second act, in contrast, is largely disappointing. Overall, there is less focus in the choreography itself and this is hampered even further by the hammy adlibbed acting by the Turkish guards, whose wildly amusing gesticulating draws much of the attention away from the action. Unfortunately, things are no better when the guards eventually take centre stage for a short ribbon dance, prompting an audience member in front of me to exclaim, "Well, that was rather bad!" Due to their poor ensemble work and muddy execution, I am afraid that I have to concur.
What works in the second act is Hansford's portrayal of Semiramis. Although it would have been even better to see the character more fully realised in the choreography, Hansford uses the steps she is given as well as the time she is left to stew over Raymonda's arrival to give Semiramis a fair deal of psychological depth. When Abderam is left defeated and dead, the depth of her work is felt: a genuine sense of tragedy permeates the stage as she mourns the loss of her lord and master.
Act III of RAYMONDA is back on form, devoted to a series of wedding divertissements. Having already impressed with his work in the first act, Hristov not only dances powerfully in his solo but also supports Kobayashi, lifting her in a series of beautiful balances when they duet.
The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Allan Stephenson did a wonderful job with Glazunov's score. Their playing was evocative, immediately transporting the audience into a world of courtly romance and exotic desire.
While I enjoyed RAYMONDA overall, the lack of complexity in the narrative frustrated me, although I enjoyed the steps Furber took to give the piece greater psychological depth. The piece is never going to be plot driven, so it seems logical that the focus must be on characterisation and virtuoso dancing. If you can get past the dissatisfying second act, there is enough of both to make Cape Town City Ballet's production a worthwhile trip to the Artscape Opera House.
RAYMONDA runs at the Artscape until 1 September. Bookings can be made through Computicket, with details of each performance's principle cast on that website's additional information tab.