<i>Le Corsaire</i> shining at Sofia Opera House

Le Corsaire shining at Sofia Opera House

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Le Corsaire (The Pirate), loosely based on the story of Lord Byron’s epic poem The Corsair, first presented by the Ballet of the Académie Royale de Musique, Paris in 1856 and originally choreographed by Joseph Mazilier to the music of Adolphe Adam, is a ballet in three acts and five scenes. The production was revised in 1867 by the same staging team and a new scene was interpolated, Pas de Fleurs to the music of Leo Delibes.

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It was first staged in Russia for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg by Jules Perrot after Mazilier in 1858 with Petipa contributing a Pas d’Esclave with music by Prince Peter von Oldenburg. The staging starred a number of celebrities featuring Marius Petipa as Conrad; choreographer Jules Perrot as the Pasha and E. Friedberg as Medora[1]. In 1863, the ballet’s most significant staging occurred, when Petipa completely reworked it for the Mariinsky. In 1868 the score acquired a substantial amount of additional music: the scene Le Jardin Animé (The Enchanted Garden) to the music of Leo Delibes and in 1899, Waltz and Adagio by Riccardo Drigo. The most important of the Moscow stagings was the version by Alexander Gorsky (Bolshoi, 1912) that expanded the work into three acts and seven scenes, acquiring additional music by Cesare Pugni, Rubinstein, Goldmark, Grieg, Dvořák, Delibes, Chopin, Tchaikovsky.

The earliest libretto featured a beauty, Medora kidnapped by the corsairs with the pirate leader Conrad falling in love with her. Her former owner, slave trader Lankendem steals her back and sells her into the Pasha’s harem. Conrad and his men appear in the palace disguised as monks. After a lot of dances and misunderstandings Conrad re-abducts Medora, the couple escapes only to be shipwrecked and find themselves happy and alone on an uninhabited island.

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Along with the main characters, there are supporting ones such as Conrad’s slave Ali (whose variation in Act II is one of the best male variations performed at almost all ballet competitions), Conrad’s friend Birbanto; Medora’s friend Gulnare, abducted and kept at the Pasha’s harem long before Medora. The two girls meet in quite a touching manner to later form two couples of lovers: Medora with Conrad; Gulnare with Birbanto (in some versions Gulnare falls in love with Conrad’s slave Ali and is freed by her lord). That is how two couples in love end up on an inhabited island.

The earliest production of Le Corsaire in this country was premiered in Varna, in a version staged by the Yordanovs, Galina and Stefan, who studied in Russia. Perhaps the idea the competitors at the International Ballet Competition, established in 1964, to perform entire parts of staged classical ballets in the third round was behind that premiere in Varna held on 24 March 1968. That was the reason why the Yordanovs took to building the full gamut of classical ballets, including Le Corsaire.

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In Eldar Aliev’s version for the premiere of Le Corsaire on 24 November 2017, Sofia Opera House[2], the ballet was reduced to two acts (5 scenes) with some of the characters featured in the initial versions scrapped[3]. The attention is focused on the enamoured couple of Medora and Conrad alone: they first meet on the slave market of all places, where she is sold into the Pasha’s harem. A wonderful directorial device is used here: time seems to have stopped, everybody frozen to the spot and in the dim light they dance their first duet together as though in their minds. Then the Pasha leads Medora away. The next act is also entirely driven by Medora and Conrad’s will to be together again. Conrad dances with her in his dream in the scene Le Jardin Animé (in the third scene)[4] and that is how he decides to enter the palace and rescue his beloved girl. The two girls swap their outfits[5]: Gulnare dons Medora’s clothes to put the Pasha and his men off the scent. Such inventions make Eldar Aliev’s version reminiscent of the romantic masterpieces, driven by love dreams.

The ballet is very difficult to support, as it requires striking male performers and a good male group in the scenes of the corsairs, involving a fairly good female corps de ballet (in Le Jardin Animé) as well as very good soloists.

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Congratulations for the three permanent casts for the leading roles of Medora and Conrad:

Nikola Hadzhitanev and Marta Petkova make a very stable couple with their immaculate technique, pure lines and a worked-out relationship. It is not by chance either that they are making international careers: recently, they danced The Nutcracker in Moscow and days after the premiere of Le Corsaire in Sofia, they left for the opening in Saratov, Russia of the fifth edition of the Stars of World Ballet International Festival where they performed the leading roles in The Sleeping Beauty.

Tsetso Ivanov and Katerina Petrova make an unbelievably beautiful couple. Tsetso Ivanov has the air of a prince of the blood with his long limbs, elegant poses and pure positions. Katerina Petrova renders each of her movements spiritual though her efforts to control them are discernible in the technical moments. Yet, when Tsetso Ivanov and Katerina Petrova look at each other, audiences are sure that there will be a happy ending to the tale. The stage of Sofia Opera House has not seen such an exquisite and spiritual couple for quite a while now.

Emil Yordanov and Boryana Petrova, the third cast are less stable. They were, in all likelihood, under-rehearsed, as Boryana Petrova danced in the first two performances the supporting but very difficult in terms of technicity role of Gulnare, where she was flawless.

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I’d like to broach the comic appearances and with his own minor choreographic theme too, of the Pasha, performed by Trifon Mitev/Rosen Kanev/Kiril Ivanov, all the three being excellent classical dancers gradually switching to character repertoire.

A special admiration for the well-rehearsed ensemble scenes Le Jardin Animé (in the third scene), Grand Pas de Trois des Odalisques (in the forth scene, in the harem), the dances of the corsairs in the fifth scene.[6] The corps de ballet of Sofia Opera House has not shown such brilliance for a long time now: uncluttered lines and awe-inspiring uniformity.

This revised version features the most spectacular moments of Petipa’s original choreography: Le Jardin Animé, the slave/trader Pas de Deux, the Grand Pas de Trois des Odalisques, Medora’s final Pas de Deux with Conrad (who performs also the variation traditionally ascribed to his slave Ali). The rest of the scenes were choreographed by Eldar Aliev: technically, very complicated, striking and polyphonically developed. In this regard, the fifth scene and the dances of the corsairs were really impressive.

The production should have not been that spectacular without the colourful and attractive sets and costumes by designers Galina Solovyova and Semyon Pastukh[7]. Owing to the Artistic Director of the ballet, Sara-Nora Krysteva, with the staging of Le Corsaire the whole gamut of classical ballet masterpieces was covered by the bill of Sofia Opera House: Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Sylphide, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, productions that deservedly won the Sofia Ballet company its international reputation.

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[1] Cf. Энциклопедия „Балет”. Москва, Советская энциклопедия, ed. Ю. Григорович, 1981, p. 623

[2] Eldar Aliev is a Principal Dancer with the Mariinsky, St. Petersburg; he gave new life to Gusev’s Le Corsaire for the Mariinsky Ballet. Guest teacher and coach at the Hungarian National Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, Ballet of Spain, the Universal Ballet of Korea, Hong Kong Ballet, The National Ballet of China, Beijing Dance Academy, Shanghai Dance Academy, Guangzhou Ballet, Guest Speaker at the Ballet Talks series at Harvard University, Visiting Artistic Advisor for Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet Master at Boston Ballet and his role as Interim Dean at the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education; Artistic Director of Ballet Internationale—Indianapolis. Presently, Ballet Master in Chief of the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre, Vladivostok.

[3]E.g. Conrad’s friends Birbanto and the slave Ali as well as the scene of the kidnapping of Medora by the corsairs and her second kidnapping by her previous owner, slave trader Lankedem.

[4] In the earliest version of the libretto, Le Jardin Animé was performed in the Pasha’s harem as a divertissement.

[5] Reminiscent of the swapping clothes in the opera The Marriage of Figaro.

[6] Répétiteurs: Masha Ilieva, Yasen Valchanov, Milena Simeonova, Ivanka Kasabova, Dilyana Nikiforova.

[7] These were the designers of Les Sylphides, the Grand Pas from Paquita, the shadows in La Bayadère (1987) and La Sylphide (1988) of Sofia Opera House and the opera Pietro il Grande staged in Plovdiv in 1984.

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Anelia Yaneva

Department of Music
Musical Theatre research group
Professor, DSc

Ballet, contemporary choreography, choreographic directing, plastic theatre, tanztheater, classical dance, modern dance, hip-hop, salsa, performing arts, dance theatre, physical theatre, musical theatre, set design
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