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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Raymonda’ premieres at the Boston Ballet

Mikko Nissenen’s variation of the classic ballet is captivating, but not coherent.

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The Boston Ballet takes its bows following the “Raymonda” performance at the Citizens Bank Opera House.

The Boston Ballet premiered Mikko Nissenen’s reimagined one-act version of “Raymonda” as part of their Winter Experience this February. “Raymonda” stands alongside “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” as one of the great classical ballets. It originally premiered in 1898 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. The ballet is known for its Hungarian character dancing and Alexander Glazunov’s unique, almost modern, score. Nissenen, the artistic director of the Boston Ballet, has consolidated the three-act ballet into a shorter one-act production.

The role of “Raymonda” on Thursday was played by principal dancer Viktorina Kapitonova. Kapitonova studied at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre Academy, and started her career as a soloist with the Kazan Ballet in Russia. It was wonderful to see choreography designed for Russian technique performed by a Russian-trained dancer. Especially memorable were her interpretations of the scarf variation toward the start of the ballet — performed with a dreamlike air — and her wedding variation near the close. The corps performed the Hungarian character dancing with poise and attitude.

The production is worth seeing if only to listen to the orchestra. The highlight of the night was Alex Foaksman’s performance of Raymonda’s final variation, a piano solo only lightly accompanied by the orchestra. The orchestra transitioned well between the high energy moments with the Hungarian-inspired music to the delicate yet intense solo variations.

The costumes, inspired by Alexander McQueen, accentuated the movements of the dancers perfectly. Every costume, from the lead to the corps, was stunning. The Hungarian costumes were bright, yet somehow seamlessly matched the pastels of the lead dancers and the set. The costumes were unified across the whole production, yet each one retained a unique individuality. Different silhouettes across the different acts provided variety and kept things interesting throughout the night. The set only consisted of an off-white deconstructed picture frame draped with gauze against a similarly off-white background, matching the somewhat deconstructed plot and giving the ballet a rather abstract feel. This, paired with the mist machine used to great effect, made the ballet feel like a pleasant dream.

The biggest issue with the Boston Ballet’s production was the way they opted to deal with the questionable elements of the plot. Each ballet company that has staged “Raymonda” in the West has taken a different approach to adapt the plot for their home audience.

In Lydia Pashkova’s original libretto of “Raymonda,” set during the Crusades, Raymonda is engaged to the French knight Jean de Brienne. During the celebrations for Jean’s return, an uninvited Muslim knight named Abderakham arrives and becomes infatuated with Raymonda. She has a terrible dream where Abderakham takes the place of her fiance in her bedroom and tries to kidnap her. In real life, Abderakham professes his passion for Raymonda, but, remembering her dream, she rejects him with contempt. Abderakham then has his slaves poison all of the other guests’ drinks and abducts Raymonda by force. Luckily, Jean de Brienne arrives just in time to slay Abderakham and save his fiancee from his clutches. Act III concludes with their Hungarian wedding celebrations.

When Rudolf Nureyev first staged “Raymonda” in the West, he altered the storyline to a love triangle, with Raymonda torn between her desire for the French knight Jean de Brienne and the Saracen Chieftain Abderakhman. He altered the role of Abderakhman from a standard mime to a principal dancing role.

The English National Ballet addressed this problem by keeping the score and choreography but completely changing the storyline. In their version, set during the Crimean War rather than the Crusades, Raymonda runs away to become a military nurse but falls in love with the leader of the Ottoman army instead of being kidnapped.

The Boston Ballet, for their part, chose to simply exclude any elements of the original plot that were unsuitable. Unfortunately, that is almost the entire ballet with the exception of Act III. The production cuts the character of Abderakhman completely, and the plot instead only consists of Raymonda longing for her fiance Jean until he returns and they are married. This leaves behind enough plot that audiences still must attempt to follow it, but not enough plot to understand what is happening on stage. The one-act version was abstract enough to be confusing, but not abstract enough to be fully plotless.

The production included title slides in French and English between each scene to indicate what was happening (for example, La Fête de Raymonda / Raymonda’s Name Day), but these felt out of place. Combined with the muted palette of the set and costumes, these slides made the performance feel like a silent movie.

Additionally, the condensed timeline made many of the plot points that remained behind almost comedic — Jean goes away to war, Raymonda pines for him for all of a few minutes, and then he returns almost immediately. Plot points designed to stretch over the span of several hours happen within minutes of each other.

In the middle of the ballet, the White Lady appears in a dream to warn Raymonda of Abderakhman. In the Boston Ballet’s production, the White Lady still appears — but there’s nothing for her to warn Raymonda about. Her presence makes no sense. It’s unclear even who she is. There are no stakes in the plot, but the characters designed to signal the tension still remain.

The plot in “Raymonda” exists already only to serve as a vehicle for the dancing and the music. Nissenen wrote in the program that the goal of the production was to display classical technique. Nothing would have been lost by completely sacrificing the plot and creating a completely abstract version.

Summary Nissenen’s one-act version of Raymonda preserves the historic choreography alongside stunning costumes and a unique score. However, although the original plot necessitated changes, the production cuts enough of the plot to be confusing but not enough to be completely abstract.
4 Stars