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Terrifying Vitality

Khachaturian's 'Spartacus'
at the Cairo Opera House


At first sight, Spartacus makes an odd primo uomo for a ballet. Perhaps he was a Roman soldier or captive, degraded to become slave and gladiator. The Romans were brutal slave-masters, and Spartacus became protagonist of the third slave uprising, lasting two years from 73 BC. Ancient writers disagree about the sequence of events, but at the Cairo Opera House on 25 April 2009 it seemed Plutarch was to be the main source. There he was, his name discreetly illuminated, amid painted statues of Classical literary worthies, gigantic and sombre on the drop-curtain.

It is significant enough that Khachaturian wrote his powerful score for performance a year after the death of Stalin, murderous and tyrannical father of his country. It pits the charismatic Spartacus, skilful in training a mob of underdogs into a force capable of withstanding and routing a series of opposing Roman forces, against Crassus, richest man in Rome, future consul and triumvirate, whose severed head eventually landed at the feet of the Parthian king twenty years later. Perhaps Spartacus intended to lead his men, moulded towards victory on the slopes of Vesuvius, to freedom beyond the Alps. For some reason he turned back, and was defeated by Crassus. His body was never found.

The performance was given by the company of the Bolshoi Theatre in Minsk, capital of Byelorussia. An unfulfilled desire of mine to lecture in both Minsk and Pinsk (to say nothing of Russia's own Omsk and Tomsk) has been greatly stimulated by watching this ballet. Khachaturian has produced music of terrifying vitality intertwined with passages of heart-warming tenderness. The latter are mainly the province of Irina Yaromkina as Phrygia, wife to the towering Spartacus of Anton Kravchenko, and object of gross insult by Konstantin Kuznezov's Crassus. But the pounding energy of the warrior music, as cohorts of slaves encounter the disciplined Roman legions, has an insistent variety and heady impact that are unforgettable.

On stage the athleticism was thrilling to watch, as the men tirelessly executed superhuman aerial flights, while Phrygia and a corps of courtesans were whirled willy nilly beyond even their wildest desires. The choreography of Valentin Yelizariev, dating from 1982, wisely avoids detailed interpretation of the revolt's events. The essential and perennial clash between freedom-fighter (not terrorist) and authority is the nub of the matter. That this particular uprising ended in the crucifixion, for public edification, of innumerable victims along the Appian Way, is left to our more grisly nightmares. Khachaturian and Yelizariev prefer a posthumous 'Requiem' for Spartacus and Phrygia.

The Cairo Opera Orchestra under Nikolai Kolyadko, who has been a main conductor at the Minsk Bolshoi since 1979, gave a spiffing performance. Motor rhythms were reinforced by formidable excursions from the percussion department, where I also began a career as orchestral musician. But amid the ferocious and almost barbarous rhythms were the plangent woodwind solos, delivered with an effortless sympathy that was balm to the soul. It is some years since I have heard the orchestra; it is now on top form.

Spartacus was an odd choice for Cairo, less cosmopolitan than before. I could not help wondering what the many head-scarved young ladies made of the courtesans as they shed at least the majority of the seven veils they probably began with at Crassus's Roman orgy. There were also acres of bare male flesh flashing across the stage with persistent regularity. But the theatre was packed. Everyone sat out the performance, and applause was rightly generous. It had been a very Russian evening.

Copyright © 7 May 2009 Robert Anderson,
Cairo, Egypt









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