Last Sunday night, we returned to the Astana Opera House for my husband’s first ballet experience, that of Swan Lake. Written by my favorite composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in 1875-6 and performed for the first time in Moscow in 1877, the ballet and its music have remained staples in both disciplines.
In the deep recesses of my mind, I remember learning about Swan Lake in fourth or fifth grade. I know we watched a video of the performance and talked about the story, but I cannot remember if that was to prepare us for a live ballet performance so that we understood what was happening. I know we definitely saw ballets in elementary school, I just cannot remember if one of them was Swan Lake. Needless to say, I had a vague recollection of the story and was excited to see another performance at the Opera House. It did not disappoint.
Occasionally I have strong emotional reactions to particular surroundings that surprise me. For example, the first (and second) time I visited the Forum in Rome, my eye began to water and there was a large lump in my throat. I had a similar reaction the moment the orchestra started. I’ve listened to Classical music since I was a kid, thanks to my Dad, and I continued to listen throughout graduate school because I found it helped me to concentrate. Perhaps these connections strike that deep emotional chord in me or perhaps it’s the familiarity of the music, or maybe it’s just hearing something so beautiful and being surrounded by it that causes my eyes to tear up, I’m not sure. I was immediately entranced regardless.
The performance was splendid! I know little of the technical side of ballet, but I know it takes years of training for one to work their body into such positions and to do so in unison with others. I was impressed by the individual performances as well as the harmony of the group as a whole. There is something mesmerizing about watching 20 or so performers doing the same movements at the same time… The Jester was highly entertaining and the most spirited dancer in the performance. Odette, the Swan Princess, was the most graceful and elegant of the group and had incredible technical expertise to make those positions look effortless; she was outstanding. However, for both my husband and I, our favorite part of the show was the Dance of the Little Swans (I had to look it up to see what this part is called, here is a performance of it elsewhere):
On Saturday night, I returned yet again to see an opera called Abai. Originally debuting on Christmas Eve in 1944, Abai is one of the most well-known Kazakh-language operas and has been performed by members of the Astana Company in New York City, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and more. Luckily, the subtitles were in Russian and English this time, so I can summarize a bit of the show for you.
The namesake of the show, Abay (or Abai) Qunanbayuli, was a Kazakh poet, philosopher, and hero who pushed to modernize Kazakhstan and unite its diverse cultural and folkloric traditions in the late 19th century. We first see Abai after two young hopeful lovers, Aidar and Ajar, are captured by another clan (and I’m still unclear if this was a clan into which Ajar already married by an arranged marriage and fled, or if she was already married and widowed, or if she was simply betrothed to someone in that group – the language was a bit tricky because the translations kept saying she “was in mourning” but it’s hard to say if it was for the death of a spouse or the prospect of an arranged marriage – feel free to clarify this for me in the comments if you know!). The clan leader, Jirenshe (or Zhirenshe) wants to kill Aidar by dragging him behind a horse, but he calls for Abai to serve as his protector. Aidar is a pupil of Abai and is known for his beautiful poetry, and Abai, who is very willing to defend the young couple, calls for an official trial. During the trial, it appears as though they will vote for the death of Aidar, but Abai’s eloquent words change their hearts and minds and the young man is saved and allowed to marry Ajar. Everyone rejoices (except for Jirenshe and the rival clan who plot revenge):
At the start of the second act, we are in a yurt as the preparations for the wedding of Aidar and Ajar are underway. During a quiet moment, we see Azim, another pupil of Abai who is jealous of Aidar and has turned against him with the encouragement of Jirenshe, poison Aidar’s cup before the wedding festivities. People start filing in for the wedding wearing an assortment of dramatically colored and detailed clothing and jewelry. The bride also enters with her head covered while Aidar sings his praises for her, but finally her covering is lifted and we see just how lovely she is – something Aidar knows without even seeing her. For about 15 minutes we get to sit back and enjoy a series of dances, which made me feel like I was actually attending the event. Suddenly, the slow-acting poison begins to take effect and Aidar collapses.
In the next seen, Abai and the faithful Ajar are seated around Aidar’s death bed as he confesses he thinks he’s been poisoned and not simply ill. He dies shortly after. Jirenshe is first accused, but pleads his innocence in the affair. Azim cracks under the weight of his guilt and is sentenced to death. Ajar and the people are crushed by this tragic series of events, but Abai lifts their spirits and encourages them to look to the future and slowly a Golden Eagle and sun (like on the flag of Kazakhstan) appear on the back wall. The show closes.
The costumes and sets for this performance were absolutely incredible! Everything was so detailed. Oh, and did I mention there were live horses on stage in the first scene when they were hunting for Ajar and Aidar? No? Well THERE WERE LIVE HORSES ON STAGE! It was awesome! In the clip above you seen the area where the trial took place, but there was also a scene with crumbling stone ruins while the lovers were on the run, a giant door that reminded me of the entrance to Moria from The Lord of the Rings, Abai’s golden library that had me drooling, and a huge yurt (nomadic tent) where the wedding took place. The costumes were colorful, embroidered, and both men and women wore at least five different types of hats or head pieces. The wedding scene was my favorite part because there was so much to look at, especially with the dancing.
While a bit long and confusing at times (since I came into it knowing little about Abai or Kazakh history), the show was overall enjoyable.
If you’d like to see/hear more of the opera, here are a few clips from a previous performance highlighting the actor who played the judge (long white beard) as well as the same cast and sets.