Despite some criticism of the ethnical stereotypes and its rather thin story, Raymonda is a dazzling ballet with Glazunov’s glorious score and grand scale, enchanting classical choreography that often is described as a string of pearls. The National Ballet of Japan’s version, choreographed by former artistic director Asami Maki was taken on tour to Washington DC’s Kennedy Center in 2008, but the current performance is its first revival in 12 years.

Raymonda
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

Maki’s production features Luisa Spinatelli’s elegant designs, simple and refined, in delicate shades of pale blue, green and gold, giving a medieval touch and a sense of opening a fantasy picture book. One very pleasant surprise was that Ukrainian conductor Alexei Baklan was permitted to enter the country after quarantine. Under his baton, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra added dramatic phrasing and passion to Glazunov's beautiful, lush melodies, and the glorious music alone was luxurious.

One characteristic of Maki's version lies in the character portrayal of the Saracen prince, Abderakhman. In the opening sequence, Raymonda is secretly betrothed to the Crusader, Jean de Brienne, while Abderakhman adores her from a distance. Abderakhman is not just an infidel Muslim, but a young nobleman passionately in love with her, and is the only humane character in the ballet. Masahiro Nakaya portrayed the role with charisma, powerful leaps, clean classical technique and with much affection, stealing the spotlight in his appearance in Act 2. It was such a pity that this role has to disappear in this act with such short stage time, but Nakaya’s stage presence and characterisation was one of the afternoon's highlights.

Yui Yonezawa (Raymonda) and Yudai Fukuoka (Jean de Brienne)
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

In this opening performance, Yui Yonezawa danced the title role. Raymonda is a ballerina’s ballet, consisting of five characteristic solo variations. Yonezawa’s interpretation was flawless with radiant musicality, crisp turns, lyrical, creamy port de bras and, to top it all off, crystalline elegance. She was singing with her whole body in the slow, ethereal variation in Act 1's Fantaisie, and made sparkling changements en pointe in her Act 2 variation. In the Act 3 Hungarian solo with hand clapping, while gliding with serene pas de bourrées, her upper body was regal and queenly, well controlled and perfectly in rhyme with the music, and even playing with it. (Baklan did an excellent job in this variation, controlling the tempo to match her retiré steps.) Everyone in the audience was holding their breath to see this magnificent interpretation of this iconic solo.

Yudai Fukuoka, in the role of Jean de Brienne, is not Yonezawa’s regular partner but they made a perfectly matched couple here. Fukuoka is a principal dancer with virtuoso technique, and his masculine character was fitted well to the heroic crusader who conquers the sword-fighting duel with Abderakhman. A strong partner, he could easily lift Yonezawa in the very tricky adagio in the Second Act and they created great harmony in Raymonda’s dream pas de deux.

Raymonda
© Kiyonori Hasegawa

The two soloists in the Waltz Fantasia, Haruka Sootome and Kasumi Okuda were both magnificent with strong academic technique, as well as the delightful Moeko Iino in the Act 3 allegro variation. The corps de ballet were well rehearsed and breathtaking in their uniformity and were mesmerising in the Valse fantastique, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Raymonda's four friends were all excellent, especially the young prodigy Shogo Hayami, who played Bernard and also appeared as one of the dancers in the Act 3 Pas de quatre, outstanding in his soaring leaps, clean entrechats and deep, beautiful pliés, he could be the next star of the company. The character dances in Act 2 could have been more powerful, but this should be improved in the course of the five performances.

Raymonda is not really a popular classical ballet in Japan, rarely performed and we can see the reason why, as the only drama is the duel between Jean de Brienne and Abderakhman and Raymonda herself does not show her feelings much and is something of a passive character. But this Petipa classic is packed with plenty of classical dancing, exotic divertissements matched with one of the most beautiful, grand-scaled ballet scores, making it a jewel and especially an excellent vehicle for a divine, versatile ballerina such as Yonezawa. As the company’s recent performances of Coppelia had to be performed in an empty theatre, the audience in the auditorium could not hide their joy at experiencing the luxury of live, classical ballet with full orchestra, and everyone was on their feet during the curtain calls. This opening performance was worth the three-month wait, and the dancers looked fulfilled as well.

****1