When the curtain rose on the Mariinsky Ballet’s production of “Raymonda” on Tuesday, the audience saw an elegant and motionless tableau. The dancers remained frozen in place for a few musical measures.
First impressions are not always reliable, but this one was. It set the tone for the tolerably well-designed but lifeless experience to come.
Mistakes were made that one doesn’t usually see in the Kennedy Center Opera House: the leading ballerina, Oxana Skorik, falling off pointe, some ill-realized lifts among partners, one of the ensemble dancers dropping her floral garland and scrambling to snatch it up again. (Truly, many of the young women seemed to fight with their flowers.) But the greater flaw was dullness. During the first two hours of this frothfest of courtly pageantry, vaguely situated in medieval Hungary, were any of the dancers truly enjoying themselves?
Indeed, there was one: Second soloist Sofia Ivanova-Skoblikova, who made a joyful, leaping game of the second variation in an otherwise uneventful dream sequence. With her refreshing zest, the crisp action of her legs and her sheer delight, she seemed to descend from another world entirely.
“Raymonda” is a formulaic and unbalanced ballet, which makes it difficult for any company to put over well. A late work by Marius Petipa (premiering in 1898 at the Mariinsky Theatre), it relies on many of his tropes. There’s the interrupted courtship, as the princess of the title waits for her knighted beau to return from his crusade. An obligatory dream scene ushers in a showcase of academic technique and whiffs of “La Bayadère” and “Don Quixote.”
After a villainous rival threatens Raymonda’s happiness, love triumphs in grand style, with the happy couple trying to outdo each other’s bravura heights. (The Mariinsky version includes revised choreography by Konstantin Sergeyev and portions by Fyodor Lopukhov.)
This ballet isn’t alone in the flimsiness of its narrative. It brings to mind the trouble with “An American in Paris,” more in the film than on Broadway: The lovers’ story is thin gruel, and one waits and waits for the big dance party at the end. The great reward of the Mariinsky’s production was the third-act wedding celebration. If you lasted through two slow hours — and on Tuesday, at least, some in the audience didn’t, with good reason — the dancers rose to the occasion. “Raymonda’s” conclusion is so dazzling that it is sometimes excerpted as a complete work on its own. This is one of Petipa’s marvels, with mazurka and Hungarian character dances to lift you out of your seat.
A magnificent solo for Raymonda is about as close as ballet gets to a feminist display. In an atmosphere of almost religious quiet, she shows off her cool authority, her mystery and her technical mastery. Skorik, all ribbony lines, was impeccable here, proving above all the steeliness of her pointework, and making up for that earlier glitch.
Alexander Glazunov’s music, while given a less-than-sparkling performance by the Opera House Orchestra, is irresistible, with its shimmering folk- and medieval-dance figures. Throughout the ballet, the music is the chief element of interest, as it weaves together the folk and classical sequences and Hungarian motifs with great feeling and invention.
Overall, this production has a curious down-market air. It does not bowl us over with its opulence, neither in the design elements nor in the dancers’ commitment and emotional investment. Rather than a living human drama, this “Raymonda” feels like a long slog through a storybook.
The Mariinsky Ballet performs “Raymonda” at the Kennedy Center Opera House though Sunday, with cast changes. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.