By Norm Robins
The Rite of Spring, brought to the stage by the world’s most famous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes, caused riots and catcalls at the premiere performance. The music by Igor Stravinsky is atonal and offensive to the ear. It even has two different themes playing simultaneously to add to the confusion. It starred and was choreographed by Diaghilev’s homosexual lover Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most flamboyant, accomplished dancers ever to grace the stage. It was performed by pigeon-toed and knock-kneed dancers in crude costumes with garishly painted faces.
The Rite of Spring tells the story from pagan Russia of the celebration of the coming of spring where young girls from two different tribes dance to two separate rhythms in competition. The losing girl must dance herself to death.
Then there were the times. The ballet premiered in Paris in 1913, one year before the start of World War I, eight years after the 1905 unsuccessful revolution in Russia, and 4 years before the successful Bolshevik revolution. The ballet company itself was an itinerant one based in Paris with no ties to Russia. The European world was in turmoil and about to get worse.
To the modern eye this is a great work of art, peculiar in its own way, but great nonetheless, although it is not my cup of tea. What interests me about this work is its place in the history of music and of dance. About that there can be no doubt. Whatever you might think about this production, it should be seen simply because of the professionalism, beauty, and talent the Mariinsky Ballet brings to the party and its place in history.
The Firebird is nothing of this sort. It was Stravinsky’s first commissioned work, and it is beautiful. After the theatrical debut in 1921 Stravinsky’s career was made.
The wicked ruler Kashchei lives in a castle surrounded by fencing with a gate and a stone wall comprised of the petrified husbands whose brides he has captured. These are to protect the tree bearing golden apples in his garden and his beautiful captive maidens. Ivan Tsarevich while hunting chases a firebird flying around the garden. In doing so he slips into the garden. The firebird plucks one of the golden apples from the tree, and Ivan, rather than shooting her, catches her. She pleads for her release. She plucks a feather from her plume and gives it to him as a reward for releasing her. He tucks it in near his breast. She has magical powers. She tells him If he should ever need her he can call her with the feather. She will come to his rescue.
Twelve beautiful maidens appear in the garden and one more of great beauty. They frolic around the apple tree and play with the apples. Ivan is still in the garden. He and the beautiful maiden meet and fall in love.
Then the sun rises, and all the maidens must rush back to the castle before it comes up. Ivan tries to follow them, but the Maiden of Great Beauty warns him if he enters the castle he will die. He opens the gates and starts to enter the castle, but all sorts of monsters, servants of the evil Kashchei, descend on him and capture him. They start to turn him into stone to go into the wall with the others who have come to rescue their brides. The evil Kashchei appears. The Maiden of Great Beauty appeals to Kashchei to spare him. Kashchei is not interested. He is interested only in petrifying Ivan and adding him to the wall.
But not all is lost. Ivan remembers the firebird’s feather. He pulls it out of his breast and waives it around to summon the firebird. She comes. She dazzles. She puts them into a frenzied dance. Kashchei dances with them. They dance to exhaustion. Peace and quietude descend on the garden. She dances Kashchei over to a tree. There is a small casket in the hollow of the tree with a large Fabergé-style egg in it. Inside the egg is Kashchei’s death. Ivan brings the casket and egg and confronts Kashchei with it. Ivan taunts him with it. He throws the egg to the ground breaking it open, and Kashchei dies. The camera cuts to the orchestra for a moment. It goes back to a line of men coming alive where the wall used to be. They are reunited with their formerly captive brides. Ivan and the Maiden of Great Beauty are united in a glorious finale. Curtain.
Everything about this production is spectacular including Stravinsky’s music. Michel Fokine’s choreography is brilliant as is his libretto. Costumes, makeup, scenery, and lighting are breathtaking. Ekaterina Kondaurova’s performance as the Firebird is perfection incarnate. Marianna Pavlova’s and Ilya Kuznetsov’s performances as the Maiden of Great Beauty and Ivan are perfect, too.
Considering the quality of the production and the HD clarity of the transmission, this is a Stravinsky couplet not to be missed.
This can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LHbPU-qSjA