The curtain rises on a graceful, gilded, gorgeous tableau of knights and ladies. The music swells and suddenly you have been transported to Mother Russia in her glory days. It’s the Bolshoi Ballet and everything is as big as the name (meaning “big” in Russian) implies. What a joy to hear a full orchestra in the Zellerbach Hall pit playing Alexander Glazunov’s expansive score for Raymonda. The Bolshoi, in addition to what appears to be a cast of thousands — plus support personnel — travels with its own musicians. And, just when you’ve blissfully counted these blessings, enter Raymonda herself, the lovely Anna Antonicheva, gliding across the stage in a string of quicksilver bourees. The whole thing is tutu divine.
The first act of Raymonda is traditional, delivered with all-stops-out opulence. There is a snooty seneschal or major domo ushering the various soloists in and out, pretty girls waving flower garlands, a good deal of business with scarves, miming of eternal love and piteous heartbreak, the whole classical nine yards. Appropriately enough, as the original production was the last full-length ballet done by the great Marius Petipa. Petipa protege Alexander Gorsky mounted his own version at the turn of the last century. The current Raymonda, choreographed by former Bolshoi head Yuri Grigorivich, came out in 1984 and incorporates some of the earlier dances by both Petipa and Gorsky.
The story, set in medieval times, is a simple, almost simple-minded one. The title character, a royal relation, is in love with, and beloved of, Jean de Brienne, a knight who hies himself off to the Crusades, leaving her with nothing but a scarf and her memories. Raymonda falls asleep and dreams that she and her knight are reunited, only to be separated by a mysterious Saracen. In Act Two, her nightmare comes true and she is all-but-abducted by the slithering, sinister, sexy and totally smitten Abderakhman (Dmitry Belogolovtsev). Jean (Sergey Filin) returns with his buddies in the knick of time and true love triumphs in the end. The Third Act is a wedding celebration with many Hungarian dances in honor of the King of Hungary who happens to attend.
There is a thinly-disguised subtext of Good vanquishing Evil, the White Knight overcoming the dark forces of the East, but it’s all really just an excuse for dancing, the ethnic disparities allowing for Arabian, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian variations. Mostly it’s terrific but the choreography hits an all-time low in the dance of the Arab slaves who look rather like something in a Star Wars movie, skittering nervously around the stage. A few other Arabs wear headgear that resembles the illustrations in a child’s Bible story book. To contemporary eyes there is something about those merry Arabs at odds with the current headlines. Little matter. Most of the costumes are magnificent and there is an onstage battle as well as the deciding duel between the two rivals.
This is one ballet where the prima ballerina dances a great deal and Antonicheva has the technique for the task. She can act too and, although she seemed to flirt a little with her Saracen suitor, you could see her fear when the game turned earnest. Belogolovtsev was a marvelously brooding villain, protesting his love with his dying breath. Filin, as the hero, looks about fourteen, but danced with strength and astonishing elevation. Apart from an errant spotlight in the dream sequence, this was as polished a production as you could wish for. And it certainly was “bolshoi,” really big.