Shostakovich on Stage – The Golden Age

The Golden Age, Op.22 – Ballet in three acts

Noah D. Gelber – Choreography
Noah D. Gelber & Andrey Prikotyenko – Stage directors
Konstantin Uchitel – Libretto
Zinovy Margolin – Set designer
Tatiana Noginova – Costume designer
Gleb Filshtinsky – Lighting designer

Sophie – Daria Pavlenko
Alexander – Mikhail Lobukhin
Old Sophie – Gabriella Komleva
Old Alexander – Sergey Berezhnoy
Vladimir – Islom Baimuradov
Heinrich – Dmitry Pykhachev
Olga – Ekaterina Kondaurova
Sophie’s mother – Elena Bahzenova
Sophie’s father – Vladimir Ponomarev
Sophie’s friends – Olesya Novikova & Ekaterina Petina
Mr von Klein – Andrey Ivanov
Mrs von Klein – Alisa Sokolova

Artists of the Mariinsky Ballet Company
Orchestra of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre
Tugan Sokhiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 July, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Even in an era where his music has become ubiquitous, Shostakovich’s three full-length ballets have yet to achieve frequent performance. Not that the situation was appreciably different when they were created during the early 1930s. Indeed, “The Golden Age” managed just twenty performances at Leningrad’s State Academic Theatre in 1930 before falling victim to polemical warfare between the radical and conservative camps of Soviet musical life. Although the orchestral suite kept the ballet’s name alive in the intervening decades, the ballet was not revived – and then in a truncated and considerably rearranged version – until the mid-1980s. The Mariinsky Theatre’s current staging is significant in its relative fidelity to the original score, but also for Noah D. Gelber’s choreography: replacing the original modish scenario with one more relevant that yet captures the provocative spirit of Shostakovich’s music.

Set in a ‘Western European city’, this involves a division of events between 1930 and 2000 – with a climactic detour to 1945. The present-day action concerns a reunion of Second World War veterans – two of whom, Sophie and Alexander, enjoyed a brief (platonic) intimacy at an international sports competition seven decades (!) before. Most of the subsequent action takes place at and around this competition, where the gymnast and the footballer find themselves drawn together across a divide represented by the Capitalist West and Socialist East. Taking in a full-scale exhibition football match, the scenario culminates with a scene in the war-stricken city – in which Sophie (as a native of the city) and Alexander (as a Soviet soldier) both come through against the odds, before the two are reunited at the dawn of a new century: older, wiser and hopeful that there is still time left for them to share.

As a means of contextualising the music, this has a lot going for it – notably the way it encompasses the old and new in ballet at a time when ‘classical’ dance had been transformed by a new generation of composers and choreographers. Still in the midst of his most experimental phase, Shostakovich was yet mindful to make room for both styles in his first ballet: thus the solo, duet and ensemble scenes contrast with those where an altogether more athletic conception of dance is called for. The main protagonists duly embody these styles – whether in the scenes set at the formal reception and cabaret show, or in those for gymnasts and footballers that constitute the main set-pieces of the staging.

Both the principal dancers, moreover, are fully attuned to the distinction: Daria Pavlenko was unfailingly graceful in her solos and ensembles, evoking an impressionable young woman with a subtle but telling range of gestures; Mikhail Lobukhin was necessarily more impulsive as Alexander, displaying an incisive brilliance in his dances that translates most effectively into desperation when, in the aftermath of war, he is saved from certain death by the gallant efforts of lifelong friend Vladimir.

Equally impressive is their integration into the wider scenic perspective. In particular, the boorish and latterly vengeful behaviour of Sophie’s friend Heinrich, aggressively rendered by Dmitry Pykhachev, and the spectacular ‘star-turns’ of Ekaterina Kondaurova – every inch the film star Olga. Conversely, the hesitant yet ultimately easeful manner of Gabriella Komleva and Sergey Berezhnoy as the aged Sophie and Alexander; overcoming both inner and outer anxieties towards the close.

Zinovy Margolin’s sets and Tatiana Noginova’s costumes add greatly to an atmosphere of cultural decadence and social upheaval, implicit in Shostakovich’s score and brilliantly realised in the finale of Act Two – when the exhibition match becomes the stark confrontation between nations headed unstoppably towards war.

Musically-speaking, there are riches aplenty in this underestimated work – whether in the powerfully sustained Adagio and symphonically-conceived foxtrot of Act One, the large-scale ensembles and Pas de deux (in the true tradition of such pieces) from Act Two, or the gripping and intense music that characterises the first half of Act Three. Set against these are such ‘light-relief’ numbers as the famous ‘Polka’ and ‘Tahiti Trot’ – a sparkling arrangement of Vincent Youmans’s “Tea for Two” made two years earlier and whose nostalgic strains are an effective means of bridging the main couple’s past and present.

All the more pity, then, that Gelber is at a loss to know what to do with the admittedly less inspiring finale of Act Three. Here, with the scenario complete, the music sounds out to a stage empty other than a projection of a photograph of the young Shostakovich – seen smiling beneficently at the audience. Quite how this is intended to round off the evening is uncertain – though, if it was meant as a tribute to the composer in his centenary year, then the intention misfired badly. Such a static tableau can have had no place in this score back in 1930, and cannot be justified in 2006.

It remains to add that Mariinsky Ballet evinced a passion and commitment no less tangible than its opera colleagues, and that the orchestra – capably conducted by Tugan Sokhiev – responded with conviction both to the effervescent brilliance and searching depths of the music. Hopefully this new choreography will put “The Golden Age” back in the modern repertoire where it belongs – though Gelber will need to rethink the unfolding of the final act, and the content of its finale, if this is to happen.

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