December 10th, 2012

Anna Karenina

On Monday, December 3rd, we went to see the highly praised new movie of Leo Tolsoy’s novel “Anna Karenina.” Our feelings were distinctly mixed.
Director Joe Wright’s approach starts the movie in a large, old theatre of the type that might have existed in St. Petersburg in Karenina’s day. However, although the theater is a framing device, the movie is not a film of a stage production. Instead, the production moves unpredictably from realistic setting to theatrical artificiality. A character passes through a doorway from a street and steps into the backstage.

“Anna Karenina” is a tragedy in the classical sense, in that everything that happens to Anna is due to her own passionate but unwise decisions. The events of the story are naturalistic, making it almost a verisimo piece in style. Therefore, we did not feel it was well served by the intrusions of artificiality, including circus-like elements such as quitting time at Oblonsky’s office being greeted by a sailor playing an accordion, a mime with a clarinet, and a man riding a high-wheel bicycle through the office.

Given that, in order to compress the lengthy novel into a movie, there are a lot of short scenes, it’s tedious to try to sort out which incidents are significant, and which are just “art”, particularly if, like me, you haven’t read the novel before.

If you can sort out the signal from the noise, there are some very fine performances by Jude Law as the undemonstrative yet feeling Minister Karenin, and by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. Keira Knightley is excellent as Anna, portraying her infatuation and then passion for Vronsky, and then her nervous breakdown and descent into drug-fueled paranoia, with believability and fire.

Production values are high, with very handsome costumes and attractive settings when not in the “theatre”—which isn’t believable even as a theatre. The one exception is Vronsky’s mustache, which looks like carpet lint badly glued to Taylor-Johnson’s upper lip, and is distinctly distracting in close-up.

Final verdict: Interesting, but unsuccessful. Other critics have been very laudatory, so your mileage may vary.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

The Bolshoi in HD: The Pharaoh's Daughter

On Tuesday night, December 4th, we went out to see another rare ballet, "The Pharaoh's Daughter," choreographed by Pierre Lacotte, after the original ballet by Marius Petipa and Jean-Henry Saint-Georges. The ballet is not so much a revival as a reconstruction, as it has been out of the repertoire since 1928 (the subject matter not being popular with the increasingly repressive Soviet regime). After seeing old pictures of the spectacular production at the St. Petersburg Theatrical Museum, Lacotte determined to restage the ballet, but found that the records of the choreography were very sketchy, and the score had to be recovered from a set of violin parts once used for rehearsal by the Paris Ballet. With a commission from the Bolshoi as aid, Lacotte's version of "The Pharaoh's Daughter" appeared in 2000, and has been back in the Bolshoi repertoire ever since.

The original ballet was Petipa's first full-length ballet, and he and Saint-Georges pulled all the stops out. No relation to the Biblical story of the pharaoh's daughter who rescued the infant Moses, the story was drawn from Theophile Gautier's novel "Le Roman de la Momie" ("The Romance of the Mummy"), and would probably be considered a "paranormal romance" by today's standards.

Sheltering from a sandstorm in a pyramid with some Arab merchants, the English traveler, "Lord Wilson" (Ruslan Skvortsov), shares their hospitality by smoking hashish with them. Under the influence he dreams first that the occupant of the pyramid, Princess Aspicia (Svetlana Zakharova) has come alive again, and then that he and his servant (Denis Medvedev) have been transported back in time to Aspicia's day, and are Egyptians. As "Taor", Wilson follows the Princess and her servants on a lion hunt, and saves the Princess from a charging lion with a well-paced arrow.

He is taken back to the Pharaoh's palace and honored desultorily for his deed, but this is overshadowed by the ceremonies attendant on Aspicia's betrothal to the King of Nubia. Aspicia prefers Taor to the Nubian, and, once the palace has settled for the night, her serving woman, Ramze, aid the Princess in bribing a gatekeeper to allow them to escape.

Pursuit swiftly follows and they are overtaken on the banks of the Nile by the Nubian King and his men. Taor, his man, and Ramze are surprised and overpowered. The Nubian confronts Aspicia, threatening her with his dagger if she does not submit to him. Scorning his blade, she leaps into the Nile and vanishes.

The next scene is the court of the God of the Nile. Aspicia, upon arriving, is issued the dress of a river spirit and expected to take a place among them. However, she pleads her case so well that the River God agrees to send her back to the world above.

Back at the palace, the gatekeeper is condemned and put to death. Ramze, Taor, and his servant are soon to follow, but are saved by Aspicia's entry. Given her miraculous return, and her relation of the unchivalrous behavior of the Nubian King, the betrothal is called off, and Aspicia is free to marry Taor.

The celebratory dancing ends as Wilson awakes on the floor of the pyramid chamber, only to see a fading vision of Aspicia as she returns to her tomb.

This synopsis can't begin to include the spectacular sets, gorgeous but mostly non-historical costumes (tutus for the women!), and the extravagant dance numbers. At two hours, ten minutes long (pretty typical for a modern full-length ballet) one can only imagine what Petipa's version was like at more than four hours, but one can guess that there was even more pomp and circumstance.

Lacotte's choreography was very pretty, and, harking back to Petipa's day, did not depend as much on speed and power as more modern ballets, although the Bolshoi's trademark precision was on display.

While not the most wonderful of ballets, this was a very diverting evening, and an interesting glimpse at a historical artifact.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.