Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, The Flames of Paris (1932) is the sort of Soviet-era piece that might easily have sunk forever into the murky realms of history. But, in 2008, Alexei Ratmansky – a first-rate choreographer and, at the time, the identically capable director of the Bolshoi Ballet – gave Vasily Vainonen’s work a thorough reworking, and transformed what might nowadays have felt like a politically minded, corps-dominated curio into an immensely enjoyable double love-story.
A hit when the Bolshoi brought it to London in 2013, and designed with great flair, it brings a long and daunting-looking scenario lucidly to life. After an instantly arresting opening image – Marseilles peasants on a smoke-filled stage, stolidly silhouetted against a backdrop of revolutionary forces embarking on the journey to Paris – the action gets going instantly, with Philippe and peasant girl Jeanne catching each other’s eye, and her brother Jérôme also soon falling ill-fatedly for the Marquis’s tender-hearted daughter Adeline.
True, a little more length might not have hurt: the ballet’s headlong nature prevents it from feeling quite as epic and affecting as it might. Otherwise, though, it is a super piece of work. To a lively score by Boris Asafiev, Ratmansky repeatedly teases the traditional classical vocabulary in new directions, and yet, choreographically speaking, there isn’t a single bum note: organic-feeling lyricism is everywhere. The crowd scenes course with revolutionary zeal, the intimate exchanges with great intimacy, and particularly impressive is Ratmansky’s talent for setting one against the other: how expertly he uses the full depth of the stage, counterpoints solos and duets with ensembles.
Also both entertaining and necessary is the sudden switch in setting and mood to the royal palace, complete with its elegant but fractionally precious minuet (just right) and amusingly prissy Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There’s also a first-rate pas de deux here – presented as court entertainment, and therefore dramatically relevant – particularly notable in its opening section for quietly pyrotechnical series of lifts.
On Friday night, an audible groan from the audience greeted the announcement at the start that due to injury, the roles of the actress and actor who perform at the palace would be taken not by Yulia Stepanova and Denis Rodkin (the latter, one of the sensations of this season) but by Anna Tikhomirova and Artem Ovcharenko. However, these stand-ins performed beautifully, radiating a grace and refinement that was ideal for this other-worldly slice of royal entertainment.
In fact, yet again in this Covent Garden residency, the company’s dancing was seldom less than spectacular. Could Denis Savin’s Jérôme have done with just a touch more ballsiness? Perhaps. But he nevertheless struck up an affecting rapport with Nina Kaptsova’s Adeline (the latter as enchanting as Semyon Chudin’s Marquis was loathsome), while the corps powered along with passion and discipline.
The undoubted stars of the evening, however, were Ekaterina Krysanova, and Igor Tsvirko, who as Jeanne and Philippe unleashed performances of astounding dramatic and technical fire. Although they pushed themselves almost too far in the big Act II pas de deux (the odd bit of fluffed finishing there), the results here nonetheless brought the house down, the climax of a partnership that seemed to ratchet up in pace and intensity as the story unfolded.
She was the dynamo of warmth and passion at the heart of the evening, unrecognisable from her perfectly spiky “Shrew” earlier in the week, and demonstrating an attack and gutsiness in the Act II Basque dance that were simply wonderful. Congratulations to her, and for that matter to the entire company: what a treat it is proving to have here, and on such blistering form.
Season runs until August 13. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk