I thought it might be interesting to read Byron’s The Corsair before attending the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Le Corsaire last weekend. The poem was wildly popular when it was published in 1814, selling some 10,000 copies when it first hit the streets. Written in three cantos, propelled by the poet’s obsessive and muscular heroic couplets, it’s a wild, 50-page performance. It tells the tale of the gloomy, independent minded, misanthropic pirate Conrad, whose sole redeeming virtue is his love for the desperately vulnerable Medora. Conrad is captured while raiding the stronghold of his enemy, Pasha Seyd; he is rescued by another beauty, the slave Gulnare, but his return to Medora is not a happy one:
It was enough – she died – what reck’d it how?
The love of youth, the hope of better years,
The source of softest wishes, tenderest fears,
The only living thing he could not hate,
Was reft at once – and he deserved his fate…
The poem opens with a magnificent description of the ocean, and man’s tenuous dominion over it, and it sets up a powerful dichotomy between adventure and life, and fear and decay. Which almost seems to extend to the couch potatoes reading Byron or sitting on their fat asses at a performance of opera or ballet based on it (Petipa’s Le Corsaire, Verdi’s Il Corsaro or Paisiello’s version of the same):
Let him who crawls enamour’d of decay
Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;
Heave his thick breath, and shake his palsied head;
Ours – the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed.
Of Byron’s poem, the ballet is faithful only to this general spirit. When the corsairs appear and dance together for the first time, you sense the ocean’s lusty power running in their veins (“The exulting sense – the pulse’s maddening play/That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way”). And you begin to think: Maybe I ought to be on a ship cruising the Aegean in stormy weather, rather than at the Kennedy Center on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. But expect no more of Byron, beyond character names and the general sense that this a ballet about pirates, slave girls and daring rescues. Pasha Seyd has no real menace, and his minions are ridiculous, Orientalist stereotypes. The slave girls are happy, larkish things, and there’s no sense of danger or exploitation.
Opera lovers with a proper respect for literature wince at the damage done to the classics by librettists and composers. It’s a fact of life. Gounod’s Faust is romantic fantasy with some woolly-headed religious sentiment thrown in; Goethe would be appalled. The list is endless. But Le Corsaire really is a travesty.
Albeit, a tremendously enjoyable one. I was lucky to see Medora danced by Natalia Osipova, a ballerina with amazing plasticity, who never seems to strike the ground with muscles and flesh, but keeps it at bay, like a master can make a yo-yo hover in mid air with no sense there’s an end to the string. Much of Osipova’s charm is in her acting—which acknowledges the silliness, the cartoon-like quality of the role she must play, and yet registers all the necessary emotional distinctions as she is passed from hero to villain and back like chattel.
Verdi’s opera, far from his best and perhaps one of his worst, nevertheless takes the Byron a little more seriously. And it has a few wonderful arias and duets. Even lesser Verdi demonstrates the literary gulf between opera and ballet in the 19th century. That raises a question: Did the story ballet fall into disrepute in part because it never really had any narrative seriousness? Discuss.