'The Pharaoh's Daughter'
Daughter of the Nile
August 7, 2004 matinee -- Royal Opera House, London
Throughout this Bolshoi season, I’ve been speaking to a number of regular ballet goers to get their reactions to what they’ve been watching. When I asked on the last night what they had enjoyed the most, there was no hesitation: “The Pharaoh’s Daughter”. This didn’t really surprise me, as a three-act ballet in the classical idiom is a jewel beyond price for most balletomanes.
Pierre Lacotte already has a number of 19th century reconstructions to his credit, but in many ways this ballet surpasses anything he has done before simply by the sheer size and scope of the undertaking. The Bolshoi stage is vast and Lacotte clearly set out to fill its empty spaces with rank upon rank of dancers as every last member of the corps de ballet is required to occupy the stage together with a supporting cast of extras and children. The look is of one of those Egyptian paintings by Alma Tadema and a heavily populated one at that. If it’s spectacle you are after, this ballet certainly delivers.
The story is slight: An archaeologist called Lord Wilson and his servant take shelter inside a pyramid to escape a desert storm, Wilson falls asleep and dreams he is Taor, an ancient Egyptian warrior who saves the Pharaoh’s daughter, Aspicia, from a lion. The pair fall in love and elope pursued by the wicked King of Nubia who wishes to marry Aspicia. After plunging into the Nile to escape the Nubian’s designs on her, Aspicia is restored to the surface by the Ruler of the Nile (a kind of Neptune figure) and is reunited with her father who relents by allowing her to marry Taor. At that point Lord W. wakes up.
Now for a lot of us Egyptology is Harrison Ford with a whip, just as Lord Wilson was a dumpy pipe-smoking former prime minister with a wife who wrote bad poetry, so there is very little chance of a British audience regarding this ballet as anything other than pure hokum. But hokum can be enjoyable and “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” is very enjoyable indeed. The Pugni music is a delight and the sumptuous sets and costumes, all designed by the multi-talented M. Lacotte himself, are beautiful approximations of 19th century style with enough pseudo-Egyptian motifs on the costumes to suggest some hours spent strolling the Egyptian galleries of the Louvre.
If this ballet has a drawback it is that the choreography is French whereas the dancers are Russian and, therefore, unfamiliar with the more intricate style they are called upon to perform. They cope well enough now, but I remember when I went to Moscow for the premiere of this work four years ago, being told by a dancer that they were finding the steps very difficult. Lacotte spares no one and the principals, soloists and corps are all expected to dance full out so that at times the stage becomes a great swirling mass of colour with everyone dancing at once.
At the Saturday matinee I saw there was a great deal to admire from the dancers and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Bolshoi matinees don’t necessarily mean an inferior cast. With Andrienko, Godovsky, Medvedev, Neporozhny, Yanin and Yatsenko all in soloist roles and all dancing at their best you realize just how strong the company is in dancing talent. Taor was danced by newly promoted Dmitri Goudanov, a stylish dancer with clean lines and admirable ballon. Already something of a favourite with London audiences, Goudanov was associated with this ballet from the start as he originally danced the role of the Fisherman who befriends the eloping Aspicia. In the leading male role, I liked him very much as he depicted Taor as boyish romantic hero, very impulsive and spontaneous towards his Egyptian princess. The only problem he encountered was that his partner was clearly too tall for him, but this was the case with a number of other pairings throughout the season, brought about I imagine by the injuries afflicting at least two taller male dancers in the company
Regardless of all this splendid support, the entire ballet revolves around the character of Aspicia, the Pharaoh’s daughter herself, and Maria Alexandrova in the leading role didn’t just dance the role, she lived it. This princess didn’t go weak at the knees at the sight of the handsome Taor, no. Love emboldened her to the extent of defying her formidable father and eloping with her lover. Alexandrova is a true aristocrat of the dance and her portrayal of Aspicia was both regal and warm with every step executed as close to perfection as I’m ever likely to see. She reminds me of the great ballerinas of the past with perfect placement and line, outstanding musicality and (in this role at least), the bearing of a queen. Her technique is awe inspiring, but for Alexandrova it is merely the means to end, unlike so many of her contemporaries straining for that extra millimetre in a penchée arabesque, for when Alexandrova dances, the emphasis is clearly on breathing life into a role for the sake of her audience.
Frankly this ballet is a bit of an oddity in many ways, a pastiche rather than the real McCoy, but with a dancer such as Alexandrova as its centrepiece it becomes high art. The work itself though is the balletic equivalent of a meringue. Too rich to digest every day, but a real treat when you’re in the right mood.
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