There was a wonderful atmosphere and overwhelming feeling of respectful acknowledgement at the Coliseum on Sunday, not least for the great Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev but the overall work that has already taken place here over the last week.
The Diaghilev Festival pays homage to his work with the Ballet Russes, which spanned much of the early part of the twentieth-century and both he and the company are widely considered as massively influential to the arts and revolutionising the very notion of European dance. Recently I’ve noticed the appeal of this world to a new and younger audience; a distance away from the solely traditional opera and ballet audience who enjoyed the exclusivity of the genre. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes were instrumental in creating this accessibility to all and this only demonstrates the lasting impression it has had on this blend of performing.
Sunday’s culmination of the festival illustrates excerpts from the six day programme. There’s a mixed bag of both opera and dance, though an overriding emphasis on the latter. Artistic Director Andris Liepa is an evidently very passionate man, introducing each production with love and vigour and sending out his thanks to all involved like a cringey Oscars speech. Musical director and conductor Alevtina Ioffe does a beautiful job of setting up and establishing the scenes so brilliantly executed by original composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
It’s not just the obvious variety here; opera-meets-dance in both The Golden Cockerel (Coq d’Or) and Polovtsian Dances is something I’ve unfortunately never seen before but the contrasting tones of the selection are what really captivated me. The Golden Cockerel‘s pantomime feel and hilarity as the opera acted as narration in a comical tale felt refreshing and right.
Scheherazade‘s principal female ballerina, Julia Makhalina is stunning to watch and the chemistry between her and Artem Yachmennikov’s Golden Slave was potentially a little bit too naughty for the children in the audience – though not outright explicit it was very suggestive. They moved with intense longing and togetherness, drawing all attention from the colourful ensemble. Makhalina’s turn as a dying swan in the (surprise) penultimate segment was quite possibly the highlight of the entire afternoon; brief but emotionally catastrophic, her talent and awareness were just something else entirely. The stripped down, almost vacant set contributed hugely to the intended feeling of this piece and anything more would simply not have worked.
The three main productions in Sunday’s programme were overwhelming in their use of colour. Anatoliy Nezhniy and Anna Nezhnaya’s design for Scheherazade was a little cartoonish at times but there was a definite warm feeling of the East and likewise with the frantic Polovtsian Dances and Nicholas Roerich’s design. Vyacheslav Okunev’s interpretation of Natalia Goncharova’s 1913 set for The Golden Cockerel was joyously ironic in its traditional and OTT splendour, contrasting perfectly with the black and white evening wear of the opera singers.
A variety of talented choreographers factored hugely in making this event such a jaw-dropping experience. Michael Fokine’s arrangement for Scheherazade – not just for Makhalina and Yachmenikov’s sequence but with the entire ensemble – concubines especially was outstanding.
I do wish I’d seen the stripped back Chopiniana at this ‘recap’ but alas it wasn’t to be, though the series of productions that I did see would have definitely made Diaghilev very proud. I’m not sure this was exactly child friendly but it certainly made both my and other people’s afternoon that much brighter.
The Diaghilev Festival played at the London Coliseum. For more information see the English National Opera website.