Ballet on the Sofa: The Firebird

Bright, brief, and action-packed, Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ was the perfect antidote to my underwhelming response to Wagner’s ‘Tristian and Isolde’. Stravinsky composed the score for Firebird in 1910, and the music is so appealing and enjoyable that it continues to be performed regularly even without the accompanying ballet as ‘The Firebird Suite’.

The Firebird subduing Koschei’s minions.

The original ballet itself was choreographed by Michel Fokine. It is based on a Russian folk-tale of the mystical Firebird, who can be either a blessing or a curse to whoever owns her.

In this telling, Prince Ivan is hunting in the forest when he captures the Firebird. He intends to kill her, but relents as she pleads desperately for her life. In return, she gives him one of her feathers, which can be used to summon her in his hour of need. Ivan releases her, and she returns to the forest. As Ivan journeys on he finds a mysterious palace from which emerges a group of maidens. As he dances with them he falls in love with one of them, Tsarevna. But Tsarevna is torn, because she and all the maidens have been enslaved by the hideous sorcerer Koschei.

The captive Firebird pleads for her freedom.

When Koschei becomes aware of Ivan’s presence he swiftly becomes angry and summons his minions to attack him. Desperate, Ivan uses the feather he was given to summon the Firebird, who subdues both the minions and Koschei himself by her power. At the climax of the battle she directs Ivan to break a mystical egg, the avatar in which Koschei had concealed his soul. Koschei’s power is broken, the maidens and the minions released, and Tsarevna is free to marry Ivan.

The version which I watched seems from the comments to have been a very good one (although I couldn’t find many images from it online, so the pictures in this post come from other productions). The Firebird was danced by Diana Vishneva, who expertly captured both the power and the fragility of the Firebird. Her desperate fluttering in the pas de deux with Prince Ivan (Andrei G. Yakovlev) was perfect, and her erect carriage as she subdued the cowering Koschei (Vladimir Ponomarev) and his minions displayed not only the strength and elegance of her character but also the strength and elegance of the dancer herself.

As Ivan shattered Koschei’s egg the stage was plunged into darkness, representing the destruction of the enchantments, and whoever was filming had the sense to draw back to an extreme wide angle which took in not only the stage but also the orchestra pit, where the lights of the orchestra continued to shine. Without this, I might have thought there was a technical difficulty, so well done them.

Diana Vishneva, the Firebird in the version I watched.

As I said at the start, I really enjoyed the action and colour of this ballet, and would love to see it live.

Have you seen The Firebird? What did you think?

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