Paris Opera Ballet presents Nureyev’s ‘Raymonda’

Visually sumptuous, vibrant, and set to a gorgeous score, Raymonda is one of the delights of the classical repertoire. The Paris Opera Ballet production opens next week.

This tale – based on a medieval legend – was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, with a libretto by the author and columnist, Countess Lidia Pashkova, and set to a score by Alexander Glazunov. The ballet had its world premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre on 7th January, 1898, and this production, by Rudolf Nureyev, was first staged for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, the year in which Nureyev became Director of the Comany.

French-born Petipa – who became one of the most influential ballet masters and choreographers in the history of ballet – spent more than six decades at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, his name becoming synonymous with most of the great ballets in the Russian repertoire – and ultimately the classical repertoire worldwide. Having made his first appearance there as Premier Danseur in 1847, he rose through the ranks of choreographer to Chief Choreographer, and was ultimately promoted to the position of Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres in 1871, his genius leading to what was known the Golden Age of Russian Ballet.

Raymonda was Glazunov’s first ballet score, and is regarded as perhaps his best-known work. The commission came following the death of Tchaikovsky, when the Director of the Imperial Theatre was looking for a composer to work with the then Ballet Master, Marius Petipa. Very much representative of the Romantic style, Glazunov – who had been a student of Rimsky-Korsakov – is known for producing richly melodic symphonies, concertos for various instruments, and ballet scores. Regarded as a great Russian composer from an early age, he became an instructor in composition and orchestration – and ultimately head – of the St Petersburg Conservatory, before leaving the Soviet Union in 1928. He made his final home in France, where he died in 1936.

Raymonda has the distinction of being the first great ballet staged in Europe by Rudolf Nureyev after his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1961. Largely unknown outside Russia until the Nureyev productions were staged, it was first seen in a production by The Royal Ballet at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1964. Nureyev subsequently staged three other versions before the opening of the 1983-84 season of the Paris Opera Ballet.

His version remains true to the Petipa original as far as the variations, the pas de deux, and Act III are concerned. Changes to Acts I and II included adaptations of the variations for the character Jean de Brienne, and two variations for Abderam in the second act – thus creating a new role for this character, and replacing the role which had previously been mimed only.

The role of Raymonda is considered to be one of the most demanding in the classical ballet repertoire. The virtuosity of the dancer needs to combine the vivacity of the variations with the elegance of the adagios, the graceful dignity of the Pas d’action and the grandeur of the spirited Grand pas Classique – never departing from the unmistakable Hungarian influence which runs through the ballet, which is also reflected in Glazunov’s score.

Nureyev commissioned the brilliant Greek designer, Nicholas Georgiadis, to create the wonderfully exotic scenery and costumes which bring an oriental flair to this production. Georgiadis – who produced some of his best known work for British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan – developed a close partnership with Nureyev, creating designs for his production of The Sleeping Beauty for London Festival Ballet, as well as several works for Paris Opera Ballet. Georgiadis is also known for the many opera productions which he designed.

The story of Raymonda tells of the love between the young Raymonda and the serene and noble knight, Jean de Brienne, who has to leave her to accompany the King of Hungary on a crusade. In his absence, the malevolent Saracen chief, Abderam, who covets Raymonda, offers her power and riches in return for her hand. When she rejects him, he tries to abduct her, but the knight de Brienne returns in time to save her from this fate. In challenging Abderam to a duel, de Brienne overpowers him, and the lovers are reunited. The King blesses the union, and the wedding celebrations culminate in a vibrant and colourful Hungarian dance.

Estonian conductor Vello Pähn – Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Estonian National Opera – conducts the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris, the Étoiles, Premiers Danseurs and the Corps de Ballet de l’Opéra in Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of Raymonda at the Opéra Bastille from 2nd to 31st December 2019. For further information and tickets, visit the Paris Opera Ballet website.

Information sourced from:Paris Opéra Ballet programme notese

Ballet and Opera

The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation

The Marius Petipa Society

The Bolshoi Ballet

The Royal Opera House

Estonian National Opera

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New production of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ for San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

After a break of nearly 20 years, San Francisco Opera brings Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel back to the War Memorial House in the final work of this Fall season. A new co-production with The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the opera features mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hansel, soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel, and tenor Robert Brubaker as the Witch. Staged by Royal Opera director and production designer Antony McDonald, performances of Hansel and Gretel are conducted by Christopher Franklin.

Sasha Cooke (left) and Heidi Stober as Hansel and Gretel
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

German composer Engelbert Humperdinck set his version of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm to a libretto by his sister, Adelheid Wette. The opera began as a series of four songs which Adelheid Wette had requested of her brother for her children to perform. Humperdinck then expanded these four songs into a singspiel, and finally into a full opera which had its premiere in Weimar on December 23rd, 1893 – a performance conducted by Richard Wagner.

Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This San Francisco Opera presentation, sung in English, has been translated by David Pountney, and tells how Hansel and Gretel’s mother sends them out to pick strawberries to prevent their causing chaos inside the home. The two children venture into the forest, not knowing about the terrifying Witch who inhabits the forest and is said to eat children. Lost, tired and hungry, they fall asleep, watched over by the Sandman, the Dew Fairy and other fairytale creatures from the forest. The following day they come across the Witch’s house which is partly edible, and while nibbling at it, are taken prisoner. Eventually managing to outwit their captor, they not only save themselves, but the other children who had been imprisoned by her.

Woodland creatures – San Francisco Opera’s production of ‘Hansel and Gretel’
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is well known to San Francisco Opera audiences, having appeared in a number of roles for the Company, including Mary in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Anna in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Magdalene in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the title role of Handel’s Orlando during this year’s summer season. Following Ms Cooke’s debut performance with Los Angeles Opera last year, the L A Times wrote of her “rich-voiced performance as Hansel”, and her “effortless midrange power”. Other Bay Area appearances by Ms Cooke this season include performances with the Violins of Hope, an artist-in-residence engagement with the San Francisco Symphony, and her return to San Francisco Opera next summer as Laurene Powell Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

Watching over the children as they sleep
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Having made her critically acclaimed debut performance with Deutsche Opera in 2008, lyric soprano Heidi Stober has appeared in a number of roles for the German company, including that of Gretel, as well as in works by Mozart, Bizet, Donizetti and Verdi. Ms Stober first appeared with San Francisco Opera two years later, and has since made memorable appearances at the War Memorial Opera House – as Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella, Angelica in Handel’s Orlando, Johanna in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat.

Hansel and Gretel come across the Witch’s house
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens is Gertrude (mother to Hansel and Gretel), having previously sung Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Klytaemnestra in Strauss’ Elektra for San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker – appearing as the children’s father, Peter – made his debut with the Company as Orest in Elektra in 2017, and the role of the Witch is sung by Robert Brubaker who has previously performed this role at the Metropolitan Opera. San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, soprano Natalie Image and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, are the Dew Fairy and Sandman, respectively. 
British director Antony McDonald – Royal Designer for Industry and winner of the 2013 McDonald Set Design Award at the International Opera Awards – has designed sets and costumes for a number of Royal Ballet productions, and sets and costumes for Royal Opera productions – including Verdi’s Nabucco, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová. Other works in his repertoire include Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen for Nederlandse Reisopera, Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges for the Bolshoi Opera and Tristan und Isolde for Opéra National du Rhin. Of Hansel and Gretel, he says: “I appreciate that this is an opera that very often is the first that many children see and therefore wanted it to be visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight”.

Heidi Stober (Gretel), Robert Brubaker (the Witch) and Sasha Cooke (Hansel) ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

American conductor Christopher Franklin is based in Lucca, Italy, having launched his career in that country, and appeared at several major Italian opera houses and festivals. As a guest conductor, he has also appeared with a number of notable British and European orchestras – such as the London and Royal philharmonic orchestras, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and the Orchestra di Verdi and Accademia della Scala in Milan. Maestro Franklin made his Company debut in 2017 with Puccini’s Turandot, and returned last year to conduct the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows in concert.

Michaela Martens (Gertrude) and Alfred Walker (Peter) in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In this production of Hansel and Gretel, Christopher Franklin leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the children’s chorus – prepared by Ian Robertson, and comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe) and the San Francisco Boys Chorus (Artistic Director Eric Choate).
Associate stage director is Danielle Urbas, associate designer Ricardo Pardo, Lucy Carter is lighting designer, revival lighting is by Neill Brinkworth, and choreography by Lucy Burge – all making their Company debuts.
San Francisco Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel is sung in English, with English supertitles, and runs at the War Memorial Opera House for eight performances until December 7th. For further information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica  

Sasha Cooke

Heidi Stober

Antony McDonald

Christopher Franklin

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