It's a pretty, storybook world that is put onstage in ABT's current production of "Raymonda," one in which the characters are not very deep but the stage picture is always attractive, gracious and colorful. Stately grand entrances are made down a low central staircase, and angry exits are made up a longer side staircase. There are capes and cloaks galore, a rich abundance of pristine classical variations, and a dash of the exotic now and then to add some spice. Holding it all together is the magnificent Glazunov score, full of dreamy waltz tunes and sumptuous orchestrations—every moment of it perfectly suited for dancing. This is music you could happily just close your eyes and listen to, and the ABT orchestra does it proud.
Coming on the heels of "Sylvia," this production—introduced in May 2004—offers another twist on the basic plot of a heroine pursued by two contrasting admirers. The character of Raymonda, however, is nowhere near as interesting as Sylvia, who goes through several transformations, abetted by the whims of the gods. But Raymonda's two pursuers do have more life in them than the two in "Sylvia." Jean de Brienne is pretty much a standard golden, noble good-guy, but he is less passive than Aminta. He doesn't need intervention from the gods to find his way to his romantic destiny, and he fights off his rival himself, whereas Aminta leaves that to the goddess Diana. Abderakhman clearly represents darker forces than Jean, but he is much more intriguing than the doltish, grabby hunter Orion in "Sylvia," who is your basic bad guy and never for a moment intrigues the heroine as a romantic prospect.
The original libretto, much of which has been jettisoned here, did have Abderakhman carrying Raymonda off, just as Orion does in "Sylvia," so maybe he makes a more positive impression here thanks to some editing. In this version, he serves to represent a more dangerous, unpredictable, overtly sensual potential partner for the heroine, one who represents a radically different society and culture—and, perhaps, one who offers a more exciting, unpredictable future. Jean may also come off better here in this version, which has him taking matters more into his own hands than in the complete libretto, which has the King of Hungary turning up in support of Jean, and the White Lady using her powers to influence the outcome of the battle between the rivals.
Speaking of that White Lady, she certainly has a lot in common with the Lilac Fairy. She leads Raymonda into her elaborate Vision, just as the Lilac Fairy does for Aurora, and presides (in her statue form) above the harmonious conclusion of the ballet. There are many, presumably intentional, allusions to "Sleeping Beauty" throughout this production; even Raymonda's entrance in Act One, and the way the assembled guests react in anticipation, is reminiscent of Aurora's arrival at her birthday festivities. Her first diagonal across the stage, she neatly bends over to scoop up four flowers that have been placed on the ground in her honor. And the big, elaborate, circling waltz of Act One incorporates white garlands.
But the ballet has nowhere near the narrative sweep of "Sleeping Beauty," at least not in this production. The two acts are crammed with luscious dancing that showcases the high level of classical technique throughout the company's ranks, but almost threatens to become too much of a good thing. We know we're in some vaguely medieval setting, from the costumes and the lutes and occasional fencing saber, but dramatic elements that would enrich the action are minimal. But Anna-Marie Holmes (who is credited with the "after Petipa" choreography, as well as the rather vague credit of having "conceived and directed" along with Kevin McKenzie) keeps the staging moving with a fluency and elegance that make it quite satisfying, if a little superficial. The vision scene, with its large pale blue ensemble evocative of Greek antiquity occasionally visited by eight women in classical tutus who dart through, manages to avoid looking overly busy, and effortlessly rides along the swells of that gorgeous music.
In the two casts I saw, the balance shifted considerably among the three leads. Tuesday's first cast offered Paloma Herrera, dancing exquisitely and with sublime musicality, as Raymonda. Maxim Beloserkovsky, looking every inch the perfect prince, was Jean, while Julio Bocca was a tantalizing Abderakhman, dancing with fiery intensity, blending power and precision. The role, complete with gaudy, overly busy costumes in hot colors, is an invitation to over-the-top silliness, and also requires the dancer to patiently stand around for long stretches while the massive non-Saracen contingent performs with harmonious refinement. Bocca made him a figure of fierce energy and passionate devotion. He ignored the niceties, like the local tradition of paying homage to the statue of the White lady, a family ancestress, but not out of disdain, but because he was too focused on winning over Raymonda by presenting her with gifts.
My first glimpse ever of Herrera onstage was 14 years ago in "Raymonda Variations" at the SAB Workshop, and I recall that right away her musical sensitivity impressed me. Glazunov's music seems to inspire her to fill out her dancing with expansive serenity. She was precise but never dry, articulating every detail, inserting a touch of rubato here and there, imbuing the choreography with pristine elegance as well as fluency. What she did not do was project a sense of who Raymonda is; this was a reticent performance. Granted, she did not have much to respond to in the major partnering sections. Beloserkovsky was bland; his dancing clear and neat in a textbook sort of way, but there was nothing generous or persuasive about his performance. I addition, there were several uneasy moments or outright fumbles in the partnering.
Michele Wiles, who took on the role at Saturday's matinee, is such a wholesome, straightforward dancer that she doesn't quite seem to belong in such a fanciful, storybook setting. While everything in her solos was cleanly articulated and beautifully stretched, it was in her adagios with Marcelo Gomes, her Jean de Brienne, that her performance attained a higher level. She was fortunate to have such a fervent, dramatically vivid Jean who radiated warmth and partnered with devotion. They made an ideal pair and complementary pair; not only is he tall enough for her, but his romantic presence warms her up and inspires an extra glowing fullness to her movements. Wiles deftly managed to insert some striking balances without interrupting the overall flow of these sequences.
Tamas Solymosi, the guest artist this season, was a rough, impassioned Abderakhman who commanded with his presence but blurred most of his dancing. He did offer an equally viable potential partner, in terms of his sex appeal, to Gomes. In the vision scene, when he suddenly replaces her rapturous and oh-so-pretty idea of what an alliance with Jean would be like, Solymosi swept her up impetuously, almost harshly, and you could sense the allure as well as the danger. Raymonda is too much of a good girl to explore this darker territory, but in opting for the obviously appropriate man, Wiles was clearly making a viable choice, given the way she and Gomes communicated a deep connection beyond the bland outlines of their designated hero/heroine roles.