Saturday, 11 June 2016

Byron’s The Corsair and the American Ballet Theatre’s Le Corsaire, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Unlike the heroes of each ancient race,
Demons in act, but Gods at least in face,
In Conrad's form seems little to admire,
Though his dark eye-brow shades a glance of fire:
Robust but not Herculean—to the sight
No giant frame sets forth his common height;
Yet in the whole—who paused to look again,
Saw more than marks the crowd of vulgar men—
They gaze and marvel how—and still confess
That thus it is, but why they cannot guess.

The Corsair, Byron, Canto 1

Byron’s narrative poem The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on the day of its publication in 1814, while the tale of love, pirating, and a pasha (plus his harem) continued to fascinate throughout the nineteenth century. Central to the poem’s appeal was its unmistakably Byronic hero—Conrad—a man lacking the beauty and even the masculine and martial victory granted to his Classical forbears.

Yet in Le Corsaire, the ballet based on a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, set to the music of Adolphe Adam and first performed in 1856, Conrad is not the focus. The components of Byron’s plot are there—the same characters with the same names—but the story has been sanitised, the hero moulded into one much more acceptable to conventional tastes and the female characters given roles which play out more traditionally. The slave Gulnare (Stella Abrera) no longer kills for Conrad (Mathias Heymann)’s sake, and Medora (Gillian Murphy), the damsel in distress, lives along with the titular character.

The ABT's Le Corsaire
ABT’s beautifully designed and exquisitely danced production, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, is notable for not trying to make anything more out of this flimsy storyline. This is a piece of erotically tinged escapism where men are brave and women beautiful, where the villain (Victor Barre) is laughable but we share in the fantasy of his dream sequence as ever multiplying hoards of women and children dance for him. The greatest threat comes from the sea—a vehicle for heroism in the Prologue, a turquoise backdrop to our couple’s romance in the second act and a powerful force for destruction (but don’t worry—not of true love) in the dramatic epilogue.

The ballet might not be Byron, but it captures the spirit of the nineteenth-century fantasy and fetishisation of the East and proves that, even for the audiences of twenty-first century New York, it remains a seductive fairy tale.

Do you know of any NYC productions the Secret Victorianist should check out next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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