For oriental opulence crossed with swashbuckling bravado, English National Ballet's Le Corsaire is a welcome antidote to winter gloom. Never mind that the plot – nominally based on Byron’s poem – is escapist nonsense. Verdi made more sense of it in his 1848 opera Il corsaro. Adolphe Adam’s ballet premiered in 1856, with choreography by Joseph Mazilier, but grew in scale in St Petersburg and Moscow as Marius Petipa added to it through the late 19th century. Anna-Maria Holmes’ production, based on those she created for Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, edits down the libretto to three breathless acts.

Tamara Rojo (Medora), Osiel Gouneo (Conrad) and Cesar Corrales (Ali) © Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo (Medora), Osiel Gouneo (Conrad) and Cesar Corrales (Ali)
© Laurent Liotardo

Bob Ringwood’s sets and costumes are a riot of colour as we’re whisked to the land of The Arabian Nights. The minarets and bustling bazaars of Adrianople host dashing antics worthy of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. Pirate hero Conrad searches for his lover, Medora, who has been kidnapped and is sold to the Pasha. Conrad rescues Medora, only to lose her again in Act II thanks to Birbanto’s plotting. Dramatically, Act III suffers a little, with a speedy rescue from the harem followed by a swift denouement, whereby Conrad’s ship is wrecked in a storm, but our lovers are miraculously saved, emerging from the waves as the curtain falls.

Petipa’s choreography, with additions by Konstantin Sergeyev at the Kirov in 1974, packs Le Corsaire with spectacle, making it a scintillating showcase for Tamara Rojo’s company. Leading from the front, Rojo’s steely attack and clinical precision made her a feisty Medora, excelling in ridiculously thrilling Italian fouettés in the Act II pas de trois. She also displayed humour in her teasing exchanges with the Michael Coleman’s belly-wobbling pasha, as well as exquisite balance in ‘the enchanted garden’, the last act opium-induced dream sequence played against a turquoise and jade backdrop of the Taj Mahal.

Michael Coleman (Pasha) and Tamara Rojo (Medora) © Laurent Liotardo
Michael Coleman (Pasha) and Tamara Rojo (Medora)
© Laurent Liotardo

Osiel Gouneo’s great elevation and high arabesques made him a graceful Conrad. His characterisation was a little generalized, but then the plot makes him a bit of a hapless hero, continually letting the girl slip from his grasp. In many ways, Conrad is on a hiding to nothing in the central pas de trois, where the slave outshines his master. As elegant as Gouneo undoubtedly was, Cesar Corrales’ Ali completely stole the show in his explosive variation, bursting across the Coliseum stage and whipping through à la seconde turns at lightning speed: virtuosic dance at its most pulsating.

Cesar Corrales (Ali) © Laurent Liotardo
Cesar Corrales (Ali)
© Laurent Liotardo

Laurretta Summerscales’ Gulnare was the perfect foil to Rojo’s Medora, softer, with feathery piqué turns. Yonah Acosta’s Birbanto shone in his dastardly dealings in the pirates’ lair (superbly laden with booty). Guest artist Brooklyn Mack was a powerful Lankendem, the slave dealer, his solo full of powerful lunges and double tour en l'air in retiré. The three odalisques dancing for the portly pasha in Act I displayed neat entrechats, Shiori Kase particularly impressing in the third variation.

Le jardin animé © Laurent Liotardo
Le jardin animé
© Laurent Liotardo

The score reveals a veritable smorgasbord of composers. The dainty Act III pas des fleurs had all the compositional fingerprints of Léo Delibes. Elsewhere, Adam’s music is supplemented, among others, by St Petersburg hacks Pugni, Drigo and Minkus – not the most distinguished ballet score, but played with brio by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under Gavin Sutherland.

There are times when you want to be moved by tragedy in classical ballet. But for sheer spectacle and mindless fun, Le Corsaire is a tough one to beat, especially when danced with such emphatic style as ENB displayed here.