A tale of dashing pirates and sensuous slave girls: Royal Swedish Ballet in Le Corsaire

Royal Opera House, Stockholm
November 6, 2023

Le Corsaire is a world-wide favourite with ballet lovers. The title comes from Lord Byron’s celebrated Romantic poem, but the ballet libretto follows its own convoluted path. The ballet first presented in 1856, has been re-choreographed several times, notably by Petipa in the 1899 version, and a string of composers have added to the score. Now José Martínez, director of the Paris Opera, has done the decent thing by giving the ballet a whole new make-over. At just over two hours long, with the important dance intact and the libretto fiercely trimmed, it is destined to become a new favourite.

Dancers relish the roles of dashing pirates and sensuous slave girls, and while the story is definitely X-rated, beautifully dressed and danced in satin pointe shoes it becomes acceptable even to ballet matinee audiences.

The excitement of sailing ships on the high seas are delivered in realistic videos from Johannes Ferm Winkler. The swelling waves and vulnerability of the vessel adding to the thrills and the set takes us to an orientalist dream. Designer, Marie í Dalí, who was also responsible for the exquisite costumes, performs a miracle with the sets in making the opera house stage appear far bigger than it is. All the right ingredients are there, Ukrainian conductor Alexei Baklan led the orchestra with élan and the company fielded four casts of principal dancers.

The Royal Swedish Ballet in Le Corsaire
Photo Royal Swedish Opera/Håkan Larsson

I was unable to see the premiere cast, however Sarah Erin Keaveney and Diego Altamirano as Medora and Conrad gave highly commendable performances as did Taylor Yanke as Gulnare and Hiroaki Ishida as Ali.

One of the main structural changes is placing the famous pas de deux (now back to its original form as a pas de trois) in the final act where it creates a suitable climax. There is a wealth of dance for the principals. Gulnare, swathed in layers of chiffon, is presented to the wealthy Seyd-Pasha by slave trader Lankendem, Kentaro Mitsumori. Their pas de deux is a highlight of this first scene as Yanke’s languid high extensions created the mood of sensual beauty. Mitsumori proved a strong partner as well as showing secure technique and excellent pirouettes in his solo where Yanke added the sparkle in a virtuoso finish.

The setting of an Eastern souk is atmospheric but clutter free leaving plenty of room for the lively folk dance of the townsfolk and pirates, led by Conrad. Altamirano fitted the bill as a swashbuckling hero, if his landings were a little unsteady, his dramatic skills compensated.

Hiroaki Ishida as Ali in the Royal Swedish Ballet’s Le Corsaire
Photo Kungliga Operan/Håkan Larsson

Conrad and Medora have their first meeting and the ploy of dimming lights and freezing the surrounding action gave them their ‘love at first sight’ moment. However, it is after the escape to the pirate lair before they can enjoy the sweetness of blossoming love in a duet of lyrical beauty.

The arrival of the pirates and slave girls changes the mood and Birbanto, Gianmarco Romano, first as partner in crime, then as rival for leadership of the gang offered fine dancing and a convincing character. Packed into the end of this act is the convoluted plot of poisoned flower, drugged hero, foiled murder and a heroine kidnapped. Here it is best to ignore critical faculties and go with the flow into Act Two.

Gulnara is now well settled as favourite in the palace, an exquisite interior of trellised windows. She finds the way to charm the Seyd-Pasha and is delighted to meet up with Medora again. The three Odalisk solos, some of Petipa’s loveliest, are thankfully all intact and were well danced by Coralie Aulas, Elisa Fossati and Stephanie Watkinson.

Gabriel Barrenengoa, in the role of Seyd-Pasha, needs a stronger presence to prove his authority but he partnered well. In his dreams he visits the Jardin animé where he is surrounded by a vision of ballerinas in pink tulle with contrasted spring-green underskirts. The dance in this section is shortened to good advantage and it was well-rehearsed and performed, particularly the quartet.

The dream is abruptly brought to an end as the pirates invade and sack the palace, taking Medora and their booty back to the cave with a great deal of action and daring do. Here the lovers are joined by loyal friend, Ali in the famous pas de trois. Altamirano, gets the lion’s share of the partnering in the opening section with Keaveney as the object of their devotion. It is one of the finest of the great pas de deux and was danced with classical precision. As Ali, Ishida, showed agility and fine turns in the male solo and soared to full height with his jumps in the coda. Keaveney showed well-articulated pointes working quietly through the feet and giving value to the musical phrasing. She also delivered an excellent series of fouettés. Altamirano’s solo, sometimes used in act one, is less of a showstopper but was presented with good attack. It’s a joy to see the trio in the full ballet and the new positioning.

In the epilogue the ship in back on the high seas but this time it is wrecked by the force of the waves. However, love triumphs and the lovers are swept up on the sandy shore and live to enjoy further adventures.