I never lose that little shiver of anticipation, sitting in a theatre the moment before the curtain goes up, hoping for magic on the other side.That hope can seldom be better fulfilled than when seeing the curtain rise on a production of Fokine’s 1910 Firebird, reconstructed  – thanks to Isabella Fokine and Andris Liepa – after original sketches. It’s a lush, shimmering, exciting set, a temperate rainforest with sparkles of magic added on it, and with that golden apple tree and those curlicued gates it has more than a flavour of the Garden of the Hesperides – wild and at the end of the world. It’s a fairytale vision of Russia, colourful and glittering, and the story it tells is no less fantastical – the encounter of the Tsarevitch with the Firebird and the enchanted kingdom of Kostchei the Immortal.

The costumes are wild too - there are 70s Space opera hairdos, blonde ringleted maidens straight out of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (1967), more alien suits than your average Dr Who episode, and a rave for the magical creatures as grungy as a 90s Nirvana concert. Against this glorious cacophony of colour, Anastasia Matvienko’s Firebird is too dainty and elegant to make the impression she needs to. The Firebird is a creature every bit as odd and splendid as all the others, and considerably more powerful, but Matvienko flutters like a pretty bluebird rather than a dangerous immortal. She’s a lovely dancer, but needs to be more visceral, more magnetic, more commanding.

Andrei Yermakov is an engaging Tsarevitch, open-faced and seemingly delighted to encounter Xenia Dubrovina as the Princess of Great Beauty. Soslan Kulaev hams it up as Kostchei (the Immortal) swaggering bonelessly as if his joints are none too firmly riveted together. And despite the battering ram approach of Alexei Repnikov at the baton, flattening nuance out of the strings, Stravinsky’s music is still just fabulous, the perfect storytelling medium in which to suspend the excesses of set and plot and grow the whole into an irresistible confection of a ballet.

Created as a vehicle to display Fonteyn and Nureyev’s passionate (platonic) romance, Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand only works when the principals have either a genuine white-hot attraction to each other, or the acting chops to make us believe they do. The scarcity of dancers with those qualities led the Frederick Ashton Foundation to refuse performance rights for many years. But those days are past - and tant pis, frankly, if the results are as claggy as Monday’s performance. Injury forbading us the scheduled bold young Vladimir Shklyarov, Diana Vishneva was left playing Marguerite opposite an Armand (Konstantin Zverev) so ordinary, she could barely bring herself to look at him. I felt sorry for poor Zverev, who looked highly uncomfortable, out of his depth both dramatically and technically. Vishneva, who was so heart-stoppingly authentic in Romeo and Juliet last week, couldn't bring the same rawness to her Marguerite: she smiles prettily, dances gracefully, and looks like a ballerina giving a good show, not a dying woman hovering above the abyss of penury while giving up the only thing left that makes her happy. We need to see the fear in Marguerite’s face and the lines around her eyes. That it holds together at all is in large part down to Liszt’s foreful, romantic Piano Sonata in B minor, although Vladimir Rumyantsev’s sensitive playing was unfortunately not matched with equal sensitivity from the orchestra.

Mariinsky Ballet Theatre, in Ratmansky's <i>Concerto DSCH</i> © V Baranovsky
Mariinsky Ballet Theatre, in Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH
© V Baranovsky

Despite my reservations about casting in both The Firebird and Marguerite and Armand, this is nothing if not a generous programme from the Mariinsky, and it ends with a much newer piece that deserves to become a classic as well-loved as the others.  Monday night saw the UK première of Alexei Ratmansky’s 2008 Concerto DSCH, a joyful romp set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major (fantastically played by Rumyantsev). The division into three sections, a pas de deux adagio bracketed with upbeat allegros for everyone, may be conventional, but Ratmansky is so inventive with his formations that it feels astonishingly fresh. The central couple – lovely Yermakov again, being an excellent partner to Viktoria Tereshkina – are complemented by an ebullient trio (Nadezhda Batoeva, Kimin Kim, Filipp Stepin) capering around like a handful of cheeky younger siblings. The atmosphere is that of the ideal schoolyard, full of wholesome teenagers in glorious high spirits, and the dance often takes on a sort of folkish quality to match. The male corps de ballet are as fresh-faced as (and apparently wearing the two-tone kit of) a sixth-form rowing eight as they turn their feet in, hold up arms straight overhead, and bounce – as if the rowing team are doing calisthenics. But there is also ballet idiom aplenty; lyrical tenderness between Tereshkina and Yermakov, and big showy jumps and beats from Kim, Batoeva and Stepin. Judging from the big smiles all around, it clearly delighted the dancers just as much as the audience.