Tilting at Nureyev’s Windmills: Don Quixote at the Staatsoper

This ballet is a benchmark by which any company is measured

Dancers in the Wiener Staatsballet’s current production of Don Quixote based in the orginal choreography by the legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev | Photo: Alec Kinnear

Giselle, Swan Lake and Don Quixote are the three productions you will find most in the repertoire of full classical ballet companies. These ballets have become the reference benchmarks with which companies are measured against one another. Pas de deux from Don Quixote poison or enliven nearly every ballet competition depending on your perspective.

Staatsoper ballet director Manuel Legris boldly pencilled in Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote from Paris Opera as one of the first productions when he was named as ballet director in Vienna. The risk was great: that the production would be a pale shadow of the Parisian version. Curiously Nureyev’s renowned Don Quixote was first staged at the Vienna State Opera in 1966 before making its journey to Paris and greater fame in 1981.

On the other hand, Manuel Legris himself had danced in the production which Nureyev had finally brought to Paris and knows the ballet inside out. Legris learned Basil’s steps at the hand of the great master. Nureyev personally cherished the role of Basil enough to have Minkus’s music rearranged by composer John Lanchberry and to rewrite the libretto to make the ballet more attractive to modern audiences.

What is special outside of the music in Nureyev’s Don Quixote are the costumes. All the fabrics are incredibly sumptuous burgundies, purples and emeralds. There is little attempt at realism. Nureyev’s Don Quixote takes place not in a dusty provincial town but in a Spain of our imagination where all the women are beautiful and all the men are handsome. Though a bit vieux jeu, the decorations remain splendid and iconical: canons on top of parapets look three dimensional.

Unlike Giselle and Swan Lake, Don Quixote has no clear emotional story line but is more a confusing pageant of frustrated lovers and comic episodes. Nureyev even included a new scene with a Commedia dell’Arte version of the grand tavern scene staged at the gypsy camp. Charmingly, this pantomime is danced not by dolls but by dance school students.

Without no clear emotional line, Don Quixote threatens to degenerate into a figure skating competition with one bravura pas after another. Hence Don Quixote has been at its best when danced by a cohort of stars. The reference production has been Alexander Gorsky’s staging at the Bolshoi which included Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Kitri, Nikolai Legat as Basil, Enrico Cecchetti as Sancho Panza, Olga Preobrazhenskaya as street dancer, Tamara Karsavina as Amor and Anna Pavlova as Juanita.

While Vienna does not yet have a Pavlova or Preobrazhenskaya, Legris showed the depth of talent acquired during the Harangozo years and polished in the last six months. Manuel Legris put all his stars out to shine on opening night.

In act one, the evening’s Kitri and Basyl invigorate the whole stage Denys Cherevychko and Maria Yakovlevla. The invincible pirouettes of Maria Yakovleva brought roaring applause. A bravado one handed overhead hold of Cherevychko left the theater breathless. Gabor Oberegger does his best to steal the show as Gamache, the rich dandy eager to marry Kitri.

Eno Peci and Ketevan Papava, as Espada and street dancer, both danced admirably, although without any particular chemistry between them until the third act. Splendid dancers both, Yakovleva and Cherevychko outshone them this night. Peci will later take a turn as Basil.

As Lorenzo the tavern owner and Kitri’s angry father, Franz Peter Karolyi in his return to the Staatsoper stage persuades and amuses. Thomas Mayerhofer puts in a solid enough performance as Don Quixote, although his sidekick Christoph Wenzel somehow fails to charm as Sancho Pansa. Ionna Avraam continues to impress as one of Kitri’s two friends and Natalie Kusch is quite fun as her cohort.

The Staatsoper orchestra powers through Minkus’s old score in act one, as if he’d written it just last week and it were the freshest flower. In the later acts, alas they flagged a little.

In act two, Yakovleva and Cherevychko also struggle a bit with their intimate pas de deux as lovers in the wood. More a case of them not working hard enough on their acting. Both tend to worry more about their steps and their smiles and not enough about their feelings. A ballet dancer should first be an actor and then a dancer. The steps are just a dialect to express the feelings.

A rule which Mihail Sosnovschi understands well, thrilling the audience in a turn as the gypsy leader, outdancing his otherwise beautiful partners Erika Kovacova and Dagmar Kronberger. Behind Sosnovschi, the male corps-de-ballet impressed as the gypsy gang. Later the female corps-de-ballet shone as dryads.

As Amor and Dulcinea, Kiyoka Hashimoto and Maria Yakovleva charmed and delighted with lavish smiles and enthusiastic battement. Premiere danseuse Olga Esina took the role of Queen of the Dryads. While Esina’s technique was faultless as ever, last night next to Hashimoto and Yakovleva, she seemed a bit palid, as though she were hardly enjoying dancing.

On the other hand, the three Dryads, Alice Firenze, Alena Klochkova and Reina Sawei were in perfect coordination. I’ve never seen three dancers at Staatsoper show such timing together. More Opera de Paris polish brought to Vienna.

Alas, the third act was a tedious set of bravura pas, livened up only by Cherevychko’s flawless spinning backward leaps and Yakovleva’s perfect fouetté en tournant. Liudmila Konovalova showed verve and faultless flexibility in astonishing high kicks as the bridesmaid but lacked the elegance of Yakovleva and Papava.

The Vienna State Opera audience likes its fare traditional. The packed theater rose for a standing ovation at the end. If you like classical dance or figure skating or even if you are just curious about Rudolf Nureyev and would like to see a fine staging of his favorite ballet, there is much to like in this production of Don Quixote.

Manuel Legris has acquitted himself splendidly in his own first major staging. He’s clearly spent a lot of time passing on his technique and mastery Vienna’s male dancers, who have never looked so good as last night. Cherevychko in particular seems to have benefited from Legris’ refined touch.

For those who would like to see something more contemporary or more emotional, you should have made it out to Schritte und Spuren when you had the chance.


Further performances: Mar. 5, 8, 15, 25, 27, 2011 Matinees: Apr. 25, May 1, 2011

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