There are two very good reasons for staging Raymonda: Alexander Glazunov’s jewel box of a score and the spectacle of Marius Petipa’s choreography. Yet the ballet has rarely flourished outside Russia, other than in Rudolf Nureyev’s fabled Paris staging. The Royal Ballet occasionally mounts the Act 3 wedding celebration – I saw Tamara Rojo dance Raymonda there – but Rojo’s 2022 adaptation for English National Ballet means that the company she has just departed from after a decade as artistic director is the only one in the UK to have the complete ballet in its repertoire. 

English National Ballet dancers in Tamara Rojo's Raymonda
© Johan Persson

The main problem with the ballet lies in its plot, which the late Clement Crisp described as “idiotic”. It is set in medieval France and concerns a young countess, Raymonda, who awaits the return of her fiancé, Jean de Brienne, from the Crusades. A Saracen knight, Abdurakhman, declares his love and attempts to abduct her, but de Brienne kills him in single combat and he and Raymonda are married.

English National Ballet in Tamara Rojo's Raymonda
© Johan Persson

To give the passive title character more “agency” – there’s a lot of virtue signalling in this revision – Rojo time shifts the story to the Crimean War, with Raymonda as a Florence Nightingale-style nurse. This also means that Abdurakhman is no longer an “evil Saracen”, but an Ottoman prince (Abdur Rahman) who is a close friend and ally of Light Brigade officer John de Bryan (Jean de Brienne’s new moniker). But this waters down an already weak plot and removes any sense of danger, the height of its drama becoming whether Raymonda accepts John’s proposal or is swept away by Abdul. It’s not exactly a nail-biter. 

Fernanda Oliveira (Raymonda)
© Laurent Liotardo

Setting the plot aside, this is a very enjoyable production. Antony McDonald’s handsome sets place the action within a series of picture frames – the Crimean War was the first to be documented in photography – with a press photographer capturing the action. McDonald’s costume designs look sumptuous, particularly for the Act 2 divertissement  in Abdur’s tent. 

Much of Petipa’s choreography is retained, a chance for ENB’s dancers to flex their muscles. The best of Rojo’s interventions is a dream sequence in Act 1 with nurses carrying lamps – a Bayadère-inspired “Kingdom of the (Lamp) Shades” sequence – lighting the way for wounded soldiers, who even enter via a ramp doing a series of arabesques. Dream Raymonda dances with both John and Abdur and we sense her conflicted feelings. 

On the closing day of ENB’s brief tour (Bristol and Southampton), Fernanda Oliveira proved a lovely, poignant Raymonda opposite Francesco Gabriele Frola’s stylish John. She depicted Raymonda’s reluctance about the marriage proposal – Rojo has Raymonda and John literally pulling in different directions at several moments in the ballet – and one sensed her immediate attraction to Erik Woolhouse’s magnetic Abdur. 

Francesco Gabriele Frola (John de Bryan), Fernanda Oliveira (Raymonda) and Erik Woolhouse (Abdur)
© Laurent Liotardo

Oliveira displayed exquisite footwork in the entrechats-quatre sur la pointe in Raymonda’s famous Act 2 variation and she also shone in the punchier “Hungarian” solo in the wedding celebration. The Hungarian flavour of this act is retained by shoe-horning immigrant farm workers into the harvest celebrations on Raymonda’s English estate, with an on-stage quartet of musicians including a cimbalom player, who takes over the piano solo Glazunov scored here (which clearly imitates a cimbalom in any case). Even here, Rojo reinforces Raymonda’s sense of restlessness, adding an epilogue in which she packs her suitcase and heads back to the Crimea to continue her nursing crusade. 

Frola danced tidily, neat scissors kicks effortlessly dispatched, but something of a blank canvas emotionally, as he needs to be for the devoted, but dull John. Woolhouse had the more macho, preening role and danced with real panache. Precious Adams was full of grace as the pious Sister Clemence; acting as Raymonda’s conscience, she fetches John to the party at Abdur’s tent, thus forcing her to make her marital choice. Katja Khaniukova and Daniel McCormick were lively in the Act 2 Georgian Rachuli dance. 

Precious Adams (Sister Clemence)
© Laurent Liotardo

But Glazunov is the real winner in this production. It was a delight to hear his score played so well under guest conductor Alexander Ingram, unrestrained in the Mayflower’s enormous orchestra pit. Gavin Sutherland, ENB’s departing music director, has trimmed the ballet slightly, he and Rojo reordering some numbers. Glazunov’s music is sadly neglected in the concert hall these days, but perhaps, via ballet scores such as Raymonda and The Seasons, audiences will want to hear more of this composer's excellent music.

***11