Maia Makhateli as Nikiya © Fabrizio Sansoni - Opera di Roma

A new Bayadère at the Rome Opera House

Review by Alessandro Bizzotto

It is always both fun and risky to see a new choreographic interpretation of La Bayadère. Fun because it is one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire, set to a vigorous, robust score by Ludwig Minkus able to amplify the strength of feelings such as passion, hate and regret in a unique way. Risky because this ballet needs to remain somehow showy, sprightly, slightly over the top: there lies its charm too, and such a ballet wouldn’t probably stand up to a too modern twist.

The brand-new version of Petipa’s classic that premiered this season at the Rome Opera House does not try to reinvent its story and does not betray tradition. It seems to relocate the story itself to a non-Indian setting (like some had wishes over the years, not to offend Indian culture; a few years ago, the Houston Ballet’s production was removed from the season as a result of protests and accusations of misrepresenting South Asian culture, as an example). And it gets closer to an abridgment of 19th-century growing interest in the Orient and orientalia.

Victor Caixeta as Solor © Fabrizio Sansoni – Opera di Roma
Maia Makhateli as Nikiya and Victor Caixeta as Solor © Fabrizio Sansoni – Opera di Roma

Re-choreographed by former Principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet Benjamin Pech (currently serving as a Principal maître at the Rome Opera Ballet) after Marius Petipa, this new Bayadère sews together the first and the second act and separates them from the third one, the famous Kingdom of the Shades, with one single interval. The costumes, designed by Anna Biagiotti, are somehow allegorical, with no interest in being plausible (let’s simply think of Solor’s sleeveless or short-sleeved costumes), while the new sets designed by Spanish illustrator Ignasi Monreal are minimalistic, vaguely figurative and far from the opulence expected when watching such a ballet.

Nothing new in Act One. As expected, the secret rendezvous between the temple dancer Nikiya and her beloved Solor, a noble warrior, is planned out and beautifully executed. Sadly, the temple is only a gigantic coppery circle used as a door, leaving the walls to our imagination. Curiously enough, the sacred fire is a kind of incense burner hanging in the air.

Principal dancer at the Dutch National Ballet Maia Makhateli, invited to dance the title role as a guest, is a mesmerizing Nikiya. She has floating line and heavenly musical phrasing – pale and beautiful, she enters the stage and dances in the nightlight as a lunar vision.

Soloist at the Dutch National Ballet Victor Caixeta is ardent and impetuous as Solor. His first pas-de-deux with Makhateli resounds with brilliance.

There is no time in the second part of Act One for the pas-de-deux of Nikiya and the slave, but the third leading character of the story, the Raja’s daughter Gamzatti, gets a new variation here before eavesdropping the conversation her father has with the Great Brahmin, come to the palace to blurt out the love affair between Solor, to whom the Raja has just offered Gamzatti in marriage, and Nikiya, for whom the Brahmin secretly burns with love. Tonight, Gamzatti is Principal at the Rome Opera Susanna Salvi, a solid dancer with an expressive upper body. Her fight scene with Makhateli’s Nikiya is tense and jittery.

Susanna Salvi as Gamzatti © Fabrizio Sansoni – Opera di Roma

Act Two features the well-known Gamzatti’s and Solor’s betrothal, against a scenery representing two giant painted curtains united in a knot. Someone in the audience whispers it is quite a poor backdrop for such a triumphant engagement. Both Caixeta and Salvi elegantly master the technicality of their adagio and of their variations, making the famous pas de deux (one of the highlights of La Bayadère in my eyes) a pleasure to watch. When Makhateli enters do dance Nikiya’s variation before her death, there’s a real shiver of beauty and anticipation.

Maia Makhateli as Nikiya, Susanna Salvi as Gamzatti and Victor Caixeta as Solor © Fabrizio Sansoni – Opera di Roma

The best part of this production is definitely the Kingdom of the Shades, that stands out against giant opium poppies – under the influence of opium, Solor dreams of meeting Nikiya among the ghosts of dead bayadères. The hypnotic long procession descends partly behind a semi-transparent backdrop revealing the figures of the female dancers and partly in full light, and the colours of the gigantic poppies combine well with the moony atmosphere and the white lights.

Makhateli’s exquisite technique makes her interpretation of Act Three resound with profundity and flawless delicacy – Nikiya is definitely one of the roles that suit her best. Caixeta twirls and jumps without ostentatious virtuosity, but he always has sharp and stylish athleticism. And even though not every member of the corps can give the choreography the powerful meaning it demands, Minkus score for this third act adds much to the charm and the appeal of this ballet, interpreted with brio under Kevin Rhodes’ baton.