How does one condense a Tolstoy epic for the stage? Prokofiev squeezed War and Peace down to a four hour opera, although it still contains some 70 named characters in its sprawling synopsis. In Anna Karenina, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky takes a different approach, focusing almost entirely on the characters of Anna, her pent-up husband, Karenin, and her young lover, Count Vronsky. Filleting the novel to its bare essentials, his ballet, presented as the central strand of the Mariinsky’s London residency, feels like a speed read.

The novel ends with Anna – torn between love and duty – throwing herself under a train and this is where Ratmansky opens. As the curtain rises, a funeral bell tolls, Anna’s lifeless body laid out on a catafalque before we witness the events leading to her death. Locomotives feature throughout, a terrific rail carriage in Act 1, but also in Wendall Harrington’s busy projections and huffing and puffing in Rodion Shchedrin’s score until an engine looms amid a fog of dry ice to claim our heroine at the end.

Ratmansky opts to have his hands tied by working to a pre-existing score and libretto. Shchedrin’s score was composed for a 1972 version choreographed by (and starring) his wife, Maya Plisetskaya. Events hurtle along at a breakneck pace, an almost cinematic retelling which impatiently cuts from frame to frame. It’s surely no coincidence that Shchedrin labelled his ballet “lyric scenes” much as Tchaikovsky did with his opera Eugene Onegin. In both situations, it is presumed that the audience knows enough of the original prose to be able to fill in the gaps. Tchaikovsky seems to be Shchedrin’s model – there’s even a direct quotation from the “Polish” Symphony – but it’s not a score that always demands to be danced. Growling double basses and grunting bassoons depict Karenin’s tortured mind and violins thrum like balalaikas in an evocative dream sequence, but these moments are too often just fleeting impressions, not given enough time to develop. Lots of the dancing is merely narrative and Ratmansky seems in a rush to tell the tale.

As a result, it takes until well into Act 2 to feel an emotional connection with any of the characters. Anna, stealing back into Karenin’s house, bids a heartbreaking farewell to her young son, but the end is already upon us. Ratmansky’s choreography is always stylish though and he differentiates the duets intelligently. When Anna is dancing with Karenin, she clearly feels trapped, caught in push-pull holds, fiercely avoiding eye contact. With Vronsky, she is freed, released in a series of dramatic lifts, uninhibited. There is also a haunting, hallucinogenic pas de trois, a contorted love triangle in which Karenin and Vronsky compete to partner Anna.

These three central characters were wonderfully danced last night. Diana Vishneva’s Anna trembled with fragility, her dancing ethereal, light as gossamer, her feet barely brushing the stage. She is a great dramatic actress, conveying emotion with her whole being, depicting Anna’s torment with terrifying intensity. Konstantin Zverev’s smouldering Vronsky was every inch the dashing officer, noble in bearing, bounding in great leaps around the Covent Garden stage. Viktor Baranov gave a moving portrait of the pensive, tortured Karenin, chained to his desk.  

Minor characters are barely allowed to register, although Svetlana Ivanova’s smitten Kitty impressed in her pretty little pas de chat lifts with Vronsky in Act 1. Alexei Repnikov drew energetic performances from the excellent Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, rattling along from mazurkas in the ballroom to thundering hooves at the races. But the ballet’s episodic nature ultimately kills off any theatrical sweep until it’s almost too late.