The Staatsoper Ballet: Rivalries Centre Stage

Since 2010, Manuel Legris has breathed new life into the Staatsoper ballet, but higher visibility also means fierce competition between primas and much backstage intrigue

Top Stories | Alec Kinnear | April 2013

The Volksoper's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream has Mikhail Sosnovichi as Puck and alternates rival primas as Titania (Photo: Volksoper)

Midway through Manuel Legris’ third season at Staatsoper, Vienna is becoming a ballet city. What a difference one person can make! Actually it’s two people: Legris has the firm backing of Staatsoper General Director Dominique Meyer, whose passion for dance can be heard in extended speeches after each premiere.

This is a stark contrast to Meyer’s predecessor Ioan Holender, who famously loathed the ballet so thoroughly that his elegant 2009 coffee table book of 18 years of premieres at the Wiener Staatsoper included not one photo of ballet.

Now that’s all changed: In just the past year, there have been tours to Japan and Monaco, Gold Medals in Varna, guest performances in the Bolshoi Theatre and the Paris Opera, and three Vienna premieres. This summer, the whole company will be going to Paris for three weeks 5 – 27 July at the famous Théâtre du Châtelet. And everywhere they go, the Vienna State Opera Ballet has been fêted.

Legris has also sensibly reintegrated the Volksoper stage and dancers into a single Staatsoper ballet, giving his fine top-tier dancers twice as many opportunities to perform.


Shakespeare at the Volksoper

Recently, Finnish choreographer Jorma Elos returned to Vienna to rework his A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the smaller stage at Volksoper. In its 2010 Staatsoper premiere, Elos’s intimate ballet seemed almost out-of-place in the grand theatre. At the Volksoper, A Midsummer Night’s Dream fills the house. The cosier atmosphere charms the audience ever deeper into Shakespeare’s world of enchantment.

Elos may never have a more ideal cast for his Midsummer Night’s Dream: Mikhail Sosnovichi reprises his role as Puck with yet more humour and energy than in 2010, and dominates the evening. Kirill Kourlaev’s eleven features and dancing aplomb are put to ideal use as Oberon. And Irina Tsymbal glitters as Titania, projecting perpetual emotional crisis as the young Isabelle Adjiani did on screen, and glowing with a kind of shining energy. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her.

The prima soap opera 

There is also a second cast with Ludmila Konovalova as Titania and a third cast with Olga Esina as Titania. And so, the intense battle of the Russian ballerinas continues, becoming strangely personal and bitter. Konovalova wants to claim Esina’s place at the top of the hierarchy. "I will be the prima ballerina here," she announced last summer. "Not Olga."

After a regal guest performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in October, where she shone as the dark seductress Odile, Esina was invited to decamp permanently to Moscow. Esina initially accepted and provisionally announced her departure. Rumours of some emotional entanglement began circulating.

Konovalova’s victory was complete – and her rival had left the field. But then in February, Esina had second thoughts and allowed herself to be persuaded to stay. Like one of the wicked Bond girls, Konovalova told me, "Oh, you must be pleased, your favourite, Olga will stay. But her presence will not interrupt my rise to the top."

This animosity perplexed the ethereal Esina. With her statuesque form, great beauty and natural talent, Esina has almost never had to fight for a role. Her reaction was diplomatic. "I don’t think about Ludmila or what she says. We are colleagues. I have my work and so does she." Perhaps Legris’ strategy of bringing the competitive and hard-working Konovalova to Vienna is slyer than we know – a secret hope she would push our tarnished diamond to shine.

Altogether, the five principal women include yet another talented Russian, Maria Yakovleva, who has adapted the Paris Opera style perfectly, becoming lyrical, flexible and exuberant in modern pieces like David Dawson’s beautiful A Million Kisses to My Skin in February. Lithesome Slovak Nina Polaková completes the five principals with elegiac grace but does not have the physical presence or energy for the prima spot.

The Paris Opera is also fiercely competitive, or course. While the dancers are exceedingly polite, many are bitter rivals who have fought over roles since they were at school. But in the end, it makes them all better, as long as no one gets knee-capped.

The men benefit too, working under as good-humoured and perfectionist a director as Legris. Roman Lazik is becoming almost an alter ego of Legris himself. It is a pleasure to watch him dance. Denys Chervyenko took gold at Varna last June, and Kourlaev has matured into a very accomplished dancer.

Upcoming performances

There are many more treats to come in the spring programme, with two performances of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Volksoper on 3 and 14 April with Ludmila Konovalova, and on 21 April with Olga Esina.

Creation and Tradition premieres at the Volksoper with a mix of ballet classics and new works created by the Staatsoper’s own dancers András Lukács, Eno Peci, Andrey Kaydanovski and Volksoper Ballet Director Vesna Orlic. Premiere 27 April with further performances 3, 7 and 28 May.

At the Staatsoper La Sylphide returns in April with the not-to-be-missed Irina Tsymbal in the title role on the 1st and 7th (matinee), Maria Yakovleva (very charming here) on the 5th, and Nina Poláková (tragically beautiful) on the 7th (evening).

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