Posted on February 18, 2021
I attended the world premiere of Michael Messerer’s production of The Flames of Paris, performed by the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg, back in 2013. It was not the first revival of Vasily Vainonen’s Soviet vehicle (alleged to have been Stalin’s favourite ballet), since Alexei Ratmansky had earlier put his own distinctive stamp on a production for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2008. However, backstage after the Mikhailovsky premiere, Vainonen’s son and granddaughter both praised Messerer for the forensic authenticity of his reconstruction.
There are valid reasons for this attention to detail. Messerer has several familial connections to the ballet: his mother, Sulamith, and uncle, Asaf, shaped the lead roles of Jeanne and Philippe when the ballet transferred to the Bolshoi in 1933, a year after its premiere by the Kirov Ballet; and in 1947, the pair received the Stalin Prize for their performances when the Bolshoi revived the ballet after the war. Messerer personally witnessed other great dancers perform in it as a child (including Raissa Struchkova and her husband Alexander Lapauri) and he himself performed in extracts from the ballet as a student. The legitimacy of his revision comes courtesy of these unique perspectives from personal interfaces with the work, which itself was altered many times by its originator.
Messerer’s production is certainly as close to a genuine “reconstruction” of The Flames of Paris as possible: he estimates Vainonen’s original steps make up three-quarters of the production (whereas Ratmansky’s ballet only has ten of the 47 sequences denoted as being “after Vainonen”). The additions Messerer has made include the inventive use of technology to add scale and depth, such as the filmed sequence depicting the invasion of the Tuileries Palace, taken from a 1953 Soviet film and inserted into the final act. Whereas Ratmansky condensed his action into two acts, Messerer returned to the original structure of three short acts, thus driving the action along in a rip-roaring romp. This effect can be maximised in the digital streaming by fast forwarding through the intervals to create a one-act ballet of non-stop action in little more than 75 minutes.
A year ago, I was physically present amongst the audience at the Erkel Theatre to see the Hungarian National Ballet’s premiere of Messerer’s reconstruction of Laurencia, and the Budapest-based company has now added his Flames to the repertoire. The streamed performance by the company dancers was uniformly excellent, although the enjoyment of their endeavours was regrettably impacted by the music for the final act being at least four counts behind the dancing. At the finale, the curtain closed on the dancers before the music had finished.
Photographs: The Flames of Paris. 1: Radziush Mikalai as Marquis de Beauregard and Tatiana Melnik as Jeanne. 2: Gergö Ármin Balázsias Antoine Mistral, Lee Yourim as Ámor and Anna Krupp as Mireille de Poitiers. 3: Tatiana Melnik as Jeanne and Gergely Leblanc as Philippe. 4: Anna Krupp as Mireille de Poitiers and Gergö Ármin Balázsi as Antoine de Mistral. 5: Tatiana Melnik as Jeanne.
Tatiana Melnik delivered a charming performance as Jeanne, the country girl turned revolutionary, and Gergely Leblanc was suitably heroic as the Marseillais leader, Philippe. Their triumphant “Freedom” grand pas de deux in the final act, symbolising the success of the revolution, built an exciting momentum, unintentionally emphasised by the dancing outpacing the music. Ivan Vasiliev is closely associated with both the Ratmansky and Messerer productions (he danced Philippe at the premiere of both) and while Leblanc cannot match Vasiliev’s explosive athleticism, his physical presence and macho confidence was characterful.
Anna Krupp played the role of Mireille de Poitiers to great effect both in terms of her meticulous dancing as the actress in the court ballet, and her expression of courage in carrying a secret document to the revolutionaries (the King’s request to seek military support from the Prussians), whilst avoiding the fate of her acting partner, Antoine Mistral (Gergö Armin Balázsi) who is shot dead by the evil Marquis de Beauregard (performed as the human equivalent of a strutting peacock by Radziush Mikalai). In the action of the court ballet performed before Louis XVI (Levente Bajári) and Marie Antoinette (Zsuzsanna Papp), Lee Yourim gave a delightful cameo as Ámor. Lea Földi caught my attention once more as the ill-fated Basque revolutionary, shot dead whilst storming the palace. Balázs Majoros and Dumitru Taran gave a good account of the pinpoint harmony required in the “Fraternity” duet of the final act.
As well as music derived from Cherubini’s opera Medée, several folk tunes punctuate Boris Asafiev’s excellent score. These include the unmistakeable melody of “Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me” wrapped around the coda of the grand pas de deux; the haunting, ill-fated melody of the Basque dance; and the rousing “ça ira” dance, which appears halfway through the second act in the Messerer/Vainonen choreography (although it provides the menacing conclusion to the Ratmansky vehicle). “Ça ira” means “as anger” in the Basque language, and is the name of a revolutionary song dating back to 1789. One would like to imagine that Asafiev used it to portray the sinister reign of terror to come – no wonder it was Stalin’s favourite ballet.
Main Photograph: Mikalai Radziush as Beauregard, Zsuzsanna Papp as Marie Antoinette and Levente Bajári as Louis XVI. All photographs: Courtesy of the Hungarian National Ballet.