John Neumeier's "Nijinsky," which premiered in the San Francisco Opera House tonight by the touring Hamburg Ballet, is very much like its subject, the great, tragic dancer who dazzled the world a century ago.
Magnificent and insufferable, mostly the former; erotic and homoerotic, mostly the latter; dramatic and melodramatic in equal measures - this is a huge ballet production, over two hours of inhuman demands on the dancers, getting some unforgettable performances from them.
Nijinsky descended into madness, ending his life in psychiatric hospitals, and Neumeier's second act stretches out that aspect of the story over an hour (that's where a certain amount of suffering is evident for some of the audience).
I just cannot imagine what it must be like - even with double-cast principal roles - to perform this acrobatic-balletic endurance marathon seven times in six days (http://www.sfballet.org/tickets/production/overview/program-2-2013).
Neumeier - whose Gesamtkunstwerk includes choreography, sets, costumes, and lighting design - created a ballet (in 2000) that can be viewed either as a bizarre, twisted story, similar to his "The Little Mermaid," or better yet, as a carefully, deeply analyzed history of Nijinsky, with hundreds of specific references to his history, most of them with searing insight (which cannot apply to the period of madness, where illumination and variety are impossible).
Many of Nijinsky's famous roles appear, reproduced in miniature or as commentary, especially two: his landmark portrayal in "Afternoon of a Faun," shown through the eyes of Nijinsky's wife-to-be, Romola, who sees both the dancer and the faun; and "Petrushka."
This, to me at least, was the evening's most memorable scene, juxtaposing Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky and Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing Petrushka - two tragic rag dolls. Even though Fokine created the work in 1911 and Nijinsky's madness struck in 1918, dancing Petrushka foreshadowed Nijinsky's future.
The Hamburg company's extraordinary soloists shone especially in portraying Nijinsky roles: Alexandr Trusch in "Spectre de la rose," Thiago Bordin as the Golden Slave in "Scheherazade" and the Faun (the role taken over later by Edvin Revazov.
Hélene Bouchet as Romola, Patricia Tichy as Nijinsky's sister, Carsten Jung as Serge Diaghilev, Emanual Amuchástegui as Leonid Massine, and many more in a huge cast all brought to life the glory days of Ballets Russes.
The work's opening scene, recreating the 1919 scene in a Swiss hotel where Nijinsky danced in public for the last time, is a coup de theater.
Simon Hewett, an excellent young Australian conductor from the Hamburg Ballet, conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, which once again covered itself in glory. The demanding program includes Chopin (played on stage by Eichard Hoynes from Hamburg), Schumann,
"Scheherazade," and two works by Shostakovich.
In the first, a movement of his Viola Sonata, Op. 147, SFB Orchestra's Anna Kruger played beautifully.
In the music for Act 2, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 ("The Year 1905"), Roy Malan (violin), Kevin Rivard (horn), John Pearson (trumpet), Marilyn Coyne (English horn), Natalie Parker (clarinet), Jim Gott (timpani), and Rufus Olivier (bassoon) were outstanding.
More strings would have served the performance better, but Hewett and the San Francisco musicians certainly made the most of what they had. Twelve first violins instead of 24? They just played twice as hard.