Anastasia, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, October 2016

In 1971 when Kenneth MacMillan produced this three-act ballet — following an earlier creation in Berlin of what became the final act — there was still uncertainty about whether the main character had once been Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Now there is none, but the ballet retains its grip in portraying the end of the Romanov dynasty, the execution of the Royal family and the insanity of a woman confined to a Berlin mental hospital in 1920 who imagined herself part of it.

Visions in Act III, all images ROH/ Tristram Kenton

Visions in Act III, all images ROH/ Tristram Kenton

In this first staging since 2004, Act I lacked pizzazz, though individual performances were strong and Natalia Osipova gave an outstanding portrayal of carefree joy as the young Anastasia enjoying family fun on the royal yacht. Darker omens in the shape of Rasputin and the physically weak Tsarevitch appear, but it is only in Act II that the main characters really acquire emotional life.

Watson and Osipova at the ball

Watson and Osipova at the ball

That act starts with Anastasia’s coming-out ball and as its special guest the famous ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, beautifully danced by Marianela Nuñez showing effortless control and glorious stage presence. After superb ensemble dancing, MacMillan exhibits huge choreographic distinction in portraying emotional interactions within the court. A burgeoning attraction between Anastasia and the military officer portrayed by Edward Watson, who later plays the mad woman’s husband in Act III, is deflected by the dark presence of Thiago Soares as Rasputin. His pas-de-trois with the Tsar and Tsarina, later joined by Kschessinska then her partner, is superbly realised as Anastasia looks on. Christopher Saunders makes an engagingly avuncular Tsar and Christina Arestis a gracious Tsarina clearly attracted to the powerful Rasputin, before outside events intervene with forceful choreography ending Act II as revolutionaries take over, with brilliant turns by Vincenzo Di Primo.

Mad woman and Rasputin in Act III

Mad woman and Rasputin in Act III

The Act III setting in a Berlin mental hospital, to dramatic music by Martinů along with excerpts of electronic music is wonderfully evocative of the patient’s mental state so well captured by Osipova. Her plight prefigures MacMillan’s creation of the third act of Manon less than three years later but unlike that ballet whose music was cleverly extracted from various Massenet operas, Acts I and II of Anastasia rely on Tchaikovsky symphonies 1 and 3. Under the expert baton of Simon Hewett, music director of the Stuttgart Ballet, this works though the choreography does not always sit comfortably on the symphonic music, particularly in Act I. Yet the power of the three acts builds as they progress, and this 1996 restaging with designs by Bob Crowley — in its first performance for twelve years — is not to be missed.

Performances continue with three different casts until November 12 — the other two Anastasias being Laura Morera and Lauren Cuthbertson — with a live cinema relay on November 2; for details click here.

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