A Prize Accomplishment

“Doctor Zhivago”
SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana
Ljubljana, Slovenia
April 23, 2016

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf

1. S.Pestotnik Stres, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016A couple of months ago Jiří and Otto Bubeníček ended their active dancing careers with their home companies, Semperoper Ballet and Hamburg Ballet. Since then they have crisscrossed the globe creating ballet after ballet after ballet. In view of the sheer amount of their commissions, lingering doubts about quality seem likely. Moreover as their last creation, “Doctor Zhivago”, promised not to be a cakewalk. It is based on Boris Pasternak’s prizewinning novel of the same title, a rather weighty work dealing with an intricate story. David Lean’s 1965 film version is very popular.

The Bubeníčeks’ ballet premiered in mid-April with the ballet company of the Opera Ljubljana. I saw the last performance on April 23.
2. S.Pestotnik Stres, L.Klemen and I.A.Ermalai, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Otto once stated in an interview that being Czech means having the love for storytelling in one’s blood. The brothers gained experience creating narrative ballets in earlier works. Working hand in hand with each other, Jiří takes charge of the choreography while Otto delivers the décor. This time Elsa Pavanel took care of the costumes. Yet a complex subject of the magnitude of “Doctor Zhivago” was a new challenge.
At the heart of Pasternak’s novel are the love affairs of Yuri Zhivago which unfold against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution of 1903 and the Civil War. After the untimely death of his mother, the orphaned young Yuri is raised by the Gromekos, his foster family living in Moscow. A poet in his heart, Yuri later opts for studying medicine. Tonya, the Gromekos’ daughter, becomes his wife.
3. I.A.Ermalai, R.Pollacchi and U.Vidmar, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Parallel to Zhivago, Pasternak tells the story of Lara, the female protagonist. She is the daughter of a dressmaker to refined society. When her mother finds out that her friend, and possibly also lover, the well-connected Komarovsky, has an affair with Lara, she attempts suicide. Yuri, now a fledgling doctor, is called to save her. That is when he sees Lara for the first time. Soon afterwards Lara informs Komarovsky about her intention to marry Pasha Antipov, a young, idealistic reformer who subsequently becomes more and more extremist. To demonstrate his power or because of being in a frenzy of jealousy, Komarovsky rapes Lara. In an act of revenge she wounds Komarovsky by shooting him at a 4. I.A.Ermalai, R.Pollacchi and L.Zuschlage, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Christmas Eve party he is attending. Yuri, also being among the guests, sees through her motives.

The outbreak of the war turns everyone’s life upside down. Yuri leaves his family – Tonya, his young son and his father-in-law – to work as a battlefield doctor at the frontline. Lara meanwhile got married to Pasha. Reportedly he has been killed in action but actually assumed the name Strelinkov and became an infamous Bolshevik commander spreading terror among people. Still searching for him Lara volunteers as a nurse. In a field hospital she meets Yuri again. Both fall in love with each other but repress their feelings. Yuri returns to his family in Moscow, while Lara continues her search.

5. Ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Meanwhile in Moscow the revolutionaries have occupied parts of the Zhivagos’ former house. Yuri is met with hostility. To escape the explosive situation, the Zhivagos move to the far-away estate of the Gromekos close to the town of Varykino. There they live in ordinary circumstances. But as it happens Lara is in Varykino too. Yuri comes across her in the local library. This time they surrender to their suppressed feelings. Soon thereafter Yuri is abducted by Communist partisans. After having been forced to be at their service for two years, Yuri deserts. In the meantime, Tonya, her son and her father go abroad. But Yuri finds Lara who nurses him back to health from total exhaustion and illness. Both spend a happy time living on the Gromeko estate until Komarovsky turns up again. He urges them to leave the country with his help. Yuri refuses to go himself but sends Lara away with Komarovsky. Shortly thereafter he himself dies from a frail heart.

7. P.Đorčevski and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 20166. P.Đorčevski and T.Kmetec, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016While Pasternak made Yuri die in Moscow, Jiří relocated the doctor’s death to the Gromekos’ estate. He took other shortcuts too, but kept the core story. Around two-hours duration, the ballet contains an astounding amount of details subtly woven together. The first scene depicts the funeral of Yuri’s mother, the following twenty or so unfold Yuri and Lara’s life journeys. Otto’s effective set design allows smooth scene changes, bare 8. L.Žiher, P.Đorčevski, T.Kmetec and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016of any hectic activity. Stage filling décors such as the home of the Gromekos, the ball room where Komarovsky makes overtures to Lara, and the estate at Yuratinov alternate with depictions of a street fight or a misty, cold battlefield. Some sets juxtapose different places where related events take place.

Each scene has its apt pace: revolutionists storm angrily forward but on another occasion drag themselves along, battle-weary and hopeless. At one point everything is happening at once: Tonya’s mother dies; Yuri is conscripted to the front; Pasha is devastated by Lara’s affair but marries her, immediately thereafter leaving for the front. Yet there is plenty of time for extensive, resourceful pas de deux and sensitively crafted group dances.

9. L.Zuschlag, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016The first act is done mainly in neoclassical language, while contemporary movements dominate the second act. The choreography is dense but never crammed in. Jiří has an unerring sense of playing the registers. He depicts events directly but also uses formal rituals. When, for example, Yuri reunites with his family in Moscow they walk around the kitchen table, one arm raised with hands interlocked in the air as if reestablishing the order of family life. Then grandfather, father and son sit around the table, take each others hands and move their arms in symmetrical circles like in a playful ritual. The table is as small as the degree of peace. Very soon the other residents, cold and self-righteous revolutionaries, contest the small 10. L.Zuschlag, T.Kmetec and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016living space conceded to the Zhivagos. Scenes like this say more than thousand words.

Another scene portrays the senselessness of the war. On the battlefield Yuri makes one partisan stand up as if he were erecting a poseable doll, but time after time the man collapses again. Repetition also is a perfect tool to make the final parting of Yuri and Lara a heartbreaking moment. Three or more times she turns round to him and clings to his chest. Every time he loosens her grip and pushes her towards Komarovsky. First gently then firmly, his face increasingly full of grief. Similar strong emotions carry the piece along. They always pour out naturally rather than being put on to increase the drama.

11. V.Vidic, L.Zuschlag, I.A.Ermalai and R.Pollacchi, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Several other aspects intensify the dense and gripping atmosphere. The choice of music by Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Schnittke, Nikolai Myaskovsky and Pēteris Vasks was excellent. It was sensitive and also pulsating, lavish as well as brittle. The music of the first act was played by the Orchestra of the SNG Opera in Ballet under the baton of Marko Gašperšič; the second act had recorded music. Because the pit was too small for an orchestra of the size needed to play Shostakovich, the Bubeníčeks cleverly decided to place the musicians at the rear of the stage. This way they also became part of the action as a group of musicians playing at the ball and the Christmas Eve party.

12. H.M.Mbeng Ndong, K.Yamamoto, L.Zuschlag and L.Žiher, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 201613. H.M.Mbeng Ndong, K.Yamamoto, L.Zuschlag and L.Žiher, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016I very much liked how the Bubeníčeks used the opera house’s resources. The small building, constructed in 1892, itself has an intimate atmosphere. By closing the orchestra pit and enlarging the stage towards the audience the dancers sometimes come very close to the first seat rows. In addition characters enter and leave the stage through the auditorium two times.

A stroke of genius was to integrate the opera’s choir. In the first act the singers barge into the ball room where the bourgeoisie are waltzing. Singing the Warszawianka, a well-known revolutionary anthem in Russia, they announce the outbreak of the revolution. At the beginning of the second act they stand on the uppermost right tier, accompanying the forlorn soldiers on the battlefield with a wistful Russian song.

14. L.Zuschlag and T.Kmetec, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016When talking with Jiří and Otto about “Doctor Zhivago” at the end of March, rehearsals were in full swing. The intense work paid off. Saturday’s cast was strong, convincing and thoroughly dedicated. The corps had much to dance, either as seamstresses, party guests, Bolsheviks, partisans or Cossacks. As in his earlier narrative, “The Piano”, Jiří included children as well. Lana Klemen depicted Tonya as a child; Svit Pestotnik Stres was the young Yuri. Both had much fun. Neža Ana Goričar portrayed Katya, the daughter of Lara and Pasha. Vid Vidic was Yuri and Tonya’s son Sasha. Of the four he had the longest time on stage which he mastered like an old timer.

15. L.Zuschlag, T.Kmetec and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016Barbara Marič as Lara’s mother ruled her sewing room with adept elegance. She kept her composure though Komarovsky gave her the cold shoulder. But her attempted suicide revealed her utter desperation. Petar Đorčevski was superb as Komarovsky, a graying macho man who knew exactly how to play a successful game. Women were his prey. Lara, however, had a deeper effect on him. Luka Žiher fanatically swung the red flag as Pasha, the revolutionist. Later, after having assumed the name Strelnikov, he became harsh and rigid. Not the slightest emotion shone through his stony face. Ilulian Anatol Ermalai had the role of Alexander Gromeko, Tonya’s father, an aging, warm-hearted man. I liked his natural interpretation. Rita Pollacchi’s Tonya evolved from a slightly effusive young woman of the world into a modest, caring mother and wife.

16. P. Đorčevski, T.Kmetec, L.Zuschlag and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016The leading roles, Lara and Yuri, were danced by Tjaša Kmetec and Lukas Zuschlag. At first shy towards Komarovsky, Kmetec’s Lara finally got ensnared by his web of seduction. Though times were harsh, she seemed fed by an inexhaustible power to live. Her love was all-embracing. Still attractive as a mature woman, her face told of her life experience and hardship. Zuschlag, a tall, blonde dancer with a square upper body, found the right balance between expressing the soul of Yuri, the sensitive poet, and of Yuri, the conscientious doctor to whom helping and healing were the upmost concerns. His performance was honest, credible and touching. Bravo!

“Doctor Zhivago” fits perfectly into Ljubljana’s opera. The ballet is a perfect calling card for the ensemble. Let’s hope it will be revived very soon.
17. L.Zuschlag, “Doctor Zhivago” by J.Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana © D.Štravs Tisu 2016

 Links:  Homepage of SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana
 Photos:  1. Svit Pestotnik Stres (Yuri Zhivago as a child), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 2. Svit Pestotnik Stres (Yuri Zhivago as a child), Lana Klemen (Tonya as a child) and Ilulian Anatol Ermalai (Alexander Gromeko), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 3.  Ilulian Anatol Ermalai (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Pollacchi (Tonya) and Urša Vidmar (Ana Gromeko), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 4. Ilulian Anatol Ermalai (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Pollacchi (Tonya) and Lukas Zuschlage (Yuri Zhivago), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 5. Ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 6. Petar Đorčevski (Victor Komarovsky) and Tjaša Kmetec (Lara), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 7. Petar Đorčevski (Victor Komarovsky) and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 8. Luka Žiher (Pasha Antipov), Petar Đorčevski (Victor Komarovsky), Tjaša Kmetec (Lara) and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
 9. Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
10. Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago), Tjaša Kmetec (Lara) and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
11.  Vid Vidic (Sasha), Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago), Ilulian Anatol Ermalai (Alexander Gromeko) and Rita Pollacchi (Tonya), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
12.  Hugo Martin Mbeng Ndong, Kenta Yamamoto (Soldiers), Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago) and Luka Žiher (Strelnikov), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
13.  Hugo Martin Mbeng Ndong, Kenta Yamamoto (Soldiers), Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago) and Luka Žiher (Strelnikov), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
14. Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago) and Tjaša Kmetec (Lara), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
15. Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago), Tjaša Kmetec (Lara) and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
16. Petar Đorčevski (Victor Komarovsky), Tjaša Kmetec (Lara), Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago) and ensemble, “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
17. Lukas Zuschlag (Yuri Zhivago), “Doctor Zhivago” by Jiří Bubeníček, SNG Opera in Balet Ljubljana 2016
all photos © Darja Štravs Tisu 2016
Editing: Laurence Smelser

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