The Fountain of Bakhchisarai premiered in 1934 at the Kirov Theatre of Opera and Ballet – now the Mariinsky Theatre. The ballet, with choreography by Rostislav Zakharov and a score by Boris Asafiev (composer of the Flames of Paris), is based on a poem of the same title by Alexander Pushkin. The ballet is known in the West largely due to the inclusion of a greatly condensed version in the 1953 film, Stars of the Russian Ballet, staring two icons of Russian ballet: Galina Ulanova as Maria and Maya Plisetskaya as Zarema.

The ballet tells the story of Maria, a beautiful Polish noblewoman who is abducted and her bridegroom killed by a band of Tatars led by Khan Ghirei. Upon first sight, Ghirei falls obsessively in love with Maria and when he brings her back to Bakhchisarai Palace he installs her in a chamber apart from his harem. His favorite wife, Zarema, who loves him very much, is devastated when Ghirei ignores her completely because of his obsession with Maria. He visits Maria and declares his love, but when he makes physical overtures to her, she is terrified, physically resists him, and faints. During the struggle, his hat falls to the floor. He leaves her and returns to the court where Zarema dances for him in an attempt to regain his love, but he rejects her.

That night, a despairing Zarema visits Maria in her chamber and begs her to reject Ghirei and restore his love for her but Maria does not understand what she is saying. When Zarema tries to kill her with a dagger, Maria opens her arms welcoming death. Zarema is stunned and falls to the floor. While Maria is trying to comfort her, Zarema sees Gherei’s hat and, overcome by jealousy runs to stab Maria; Ghirei, who has rushed in after being alerted by a guard, tries unsuccessfully to stop her. When he realizes Maria is dead, in a rage, he moves to kill Zarema but is unable to do so. He orders the guards to throw her to her death from the palace rampart. The ballet ends with a mournful Gherei seeing visions of both Maria and Zarema while he mourns at the Fountain of Tears.

The production has several major deficiencies. Its score, while featuring dramatic and moving moments, is uninspiring in places, and the choreography – primarily character and demi-character dances – is simplistic. Some of the scenes are outdated, as when two eunuchs attempt to stop the concubines’ caricatured inadequate behavior. When one of the concubines –who is about to be whipped for this behavior – is unexpectedly spared, she smiles mischievously like a child who has avoided a parental reprimand.

Given these deficiencies, the success of the performance depends primarily on the dramatic skills and expressivity of the lead performers. Olesya Novikova (Maria) has a beautiful line and dances with lightness and delicacy. In Act I, she effectively conveyed the emotions of a young women very much in love with her bridegroom, Vaslav, played with great ardor and dashing flair by Vitali Amelishko. Together, they danced with elegance and grace.

However, in Act III, Novikova’s dancing had the same lyrical quality as in Act I. Her general affect was mournful but her facial expressions and dancing did not express the depth and range of emotions expected of a woman in her situation. The choreography in the scene where Ghirei makes physical overtures to her does not help, reminding the viewer that this ballet was staged when Soviet censors would never have permitted the realism and resulting emotional impact that a choreographer like Kenneth MacMillan would have brought to the scene.

Zarema was played by Ekaterina Kondaurova. In her attempt to regain Ghirei’s love, she danced sensually and seductively – a woman confident of her beauty and allure who simply cannot comprehend the change in her husband’s affections. But once Ghirei outright rejects her, Kondaurova’s dancing did not express the desperation of a woman who is driven to murder her perceived rival. In one scene, the music builds to a climax that is supposed to express her frantic enraged state to which the harem recoils in shock, but her dancing did not match the intensity of the music, nor justify the harem’s reaction.

Yuri Smekalov played Khan Ghirei, which apart from some partnering in Act III is a character role. Smekalov is tall, physically impressive, and commanding. He believably expressed the requisite range of grand emotions – from contempt and triumphant arrogance to obsessive love, passion, fury, and finally despair. But his acting lacked nuance. In much of Act II, he seemed to be merely brooding and irritable, rather than expressing the complex mix of emotions of a ruler and warrior undone by unexpected and unrequited love and longing.

The corps de ballet and soloists danced to the expected high standard. The male corps de ballet in particular excelled in Act III’s Tatar dance, intended to rouse Ghirei out of his depression over the death of Maria. Maksim Ismestie, making his debut as Nurali, Ghirei’s leading commander, danced with dramatic intensity and great energy.

This ballet is a classic of the Mariinsky repertoire, but given its deficiencies and lacking the almost heroic performances needed to compensate for them, it does not provide a satisfying theatrical experience.