“Le Corsaire” is not a great ballet. With its pirates and harem girls, however, it can be great fun, and that’s the case with the version that Boston Ballet is presenting at the Opera House.
Back in 1997, Boston Ballet actually gave the American premiere of “Le Corsaire.” The ballet debuted in Paris in 1856 and in 1858 moved to St. Petersburg, where Marius Petipa tinkered with it over the next four decades. But during the 20th century, “Le Corsaire” was hardly seen outside Russia; it was known primarily for the second-act pas de deux that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn made famous. Staged by then associate artistic director Anna-Marie Holmes, that 1997 Boston Ballet production, with revisions, is now in the repertoire of American Ballet Theatre and the English National Ballet. But for the company’s new production, artistic director Mikko Nissinen turned to the 2007 version that Czech choreographer Ivan Liška created for the Bayerische Staatsballett.
Liška has made some tweaks to the scenario. Conrad is still the title Mediterranean pirate, with Birbanto as his lieutenant. But Ali, originally Conrad’s slave, now belongs to Turkish merchant and slave trader Lankedem, and Medora is no longer a slave but Lankedem’s Greek foster daughter.
At least, she’s his foster daughter until a Pasha arrives at the marketplace of Lankedem’s seaport town looking to add to his harem. Lankedem sells the Pasha his most beautiful slave girl, Gulnara, but when the Pasha catches sight of Medora, he wants her, too — and eventually the price is right. That doesn’t sit well with Conrad; he’s arrived at the same time as the Pasha, and he and Medora have fallen in love at first sight. So Conrad gets Ali to steal her away, and for good measure his fellow corsairs make off with six additional slave girls.
Cut to Conrad’s “pirate island” and what would be a happy ending if Birbanto and the corsairs didn’t want to sell the slave girls. Medora persuades Conrad to free the girls, whereupon an enraged Birbanto drugs Conrad so that Medora can be carried off and sold to the Pasha. Birbanto is about to kill the sleeping Conrad, but Ali intervenes and kills Birbanto. In the final act, Conrad, Ali, and his faithful corsairs enter the Pasha’s palace disguised as pilgrims and rescue Medora.
Most modern productions of “Le Corsaire” are not about the story, where key plot developments occur off stage or in the blink of an eye, or about the music, which is a pastiche, incorporating pieces written for other occasions. Instead these productions — most of them based on Petipa’s final revision, from 1899 — showcase virtuoso dancing. Liška has integrated the dancing with the story, which is a good thing, but he’s eliminated much of the virtuosity, and that will disappoint anyone who remembers what Patrick Armand, Rob Wallace, and Paul Thrussell brought to that 1997 Boston Ballet production.
There’s still a lot to appreciate in an evening that runs 2½ hours, with one 30-minute intermission. Roger Kirk’s Turkish marketplace has massive, appropriately claustrophobic stone walls with a big ogival opening through which you can see Conrad’s docked ship. The grotto of Conrad’s pirate island is similarly massive; his palace for the Pasha, brown against a blue sky, does a lot with a little. His costumes are effective, though the hip-hugging plate tutus are not flattering to the ladies. The Boston Ballet Orchestra under music director emeritus Jonathan McPhee is flashy and splashy — exactly what “Le Corsaire” needs.
Thursday’s opening-night cast danced well and enjoyed itself immensely. Lasha Khozashvili was a dashing Conrad who understood the cartoon nature of this role and played it to the hilt, and both he and Irlan Silva’s gracious Ali were high flyers. The strong-legged Eris Nezha brought such an explosive energy to Birbanto, I was sorry Liška’s scenario called for the character to die at the end of the second act. Roddy Doble was a thoughtful Lankedem, who agonized over selling Medora. The Pasha of “Le Corsaire” is usually a comic dunderhead; Sabi Varga was sympathetic instead.
The leading ladies had their best moments in teasing turns. Both Seo Hye Han’s Medora and Lia Cirio’s Gulnara were a little reserved, but Han was exuberant mimicking a pirate in the “Petit Corsaire” number, and Cirio danced playful rings around the Pasha in her third-act polka. The famous “Jardin Animé,” full of garlands and Boston Ballet School students, was decorative, and here Han was both soft and crisp. The artists of the company — what Boston Ballet now calls its corps de ballet — gave texture, as they always do, to the background action; there were mini-dramas everywhere.
The third act, with its happy harem, was a bit of a surprise; Gulnara is so enamored of the Pasha that she rejects Ali’s appeal to join Medora in freedom. The ending of this “Corsaire” is also different. In the usual downbeat scenario, the corsair ship is wrecked in a storm and only Conrad and Medora survive. Here, as in the Mariinsky version, everybody is off to “new adventures.” Too bad there won’t be a sequel.
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, through Nov. 6. Tickets: $35-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org