Set in the exotic surroundings of the Ottoman Empire and with a narrative encompassing abduction, murder and shipwreck, Le Corsaire is a swashbuckling pirate drama that delights for its spectacular nature and which includes some of the most bravura male dancing in the ballet repertoire. The work’s evolution has been a complex one, its libretto and choreography subject to numerous revisions since its first appearance in Paris in 1856, and in this English National Ballet production – the first British staging of the work – former-ballerina-turned-choreographer Anna-Marie Holmes adapts the 1974 Petipa-Sergeyev Kirov version to create ‘brisk, stylish entertainment’ (Guardian) that is visually enhanced by Hollywood designer Bob Ringwood’s ‘superb’ (Daily Telegraph) Orientalist sets and costumes. First-rate dancing by the company and its soloists – including Alina Cojocaru’s ‘radiant performance’ as Medora (Independent), Yonah Acosta’s ‘vividly drawn and villainous’ Birbanto (Financial Times) and Vadim Muntagirov’s ‘compelling’ (Daily Telegraph) portrayal of Conrad – underscores the ‘roaring, madcap success’ (Financial Times) of this production.
The five variations of the title piece find Bryars returning somewhat to the more overtly experimental, not to say whimsical, aspects of his earliest work. They take the form of brief instructions in the fine art of cardsharping, with musical accompaniment, to be broadcast over radio during unoccupied stretches of airtime.
Vita Nova includes four pieces by Bryars in which ECM appeared to be, at least partially, attempting to cash in on the new age-y vogue of the early '90s for the sort of quasi-medieval music made relatively popular by assorted singing monks, Arvo Pärt, and the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek. Indeed, that latter group is on hand here to perform "Glorious Hill," and the results are as blandly attractive as the listener might guess given the following recipe: Take a mushily mystical text (in Latin), set to vaguely medieval sounding music, and spice with a dash of chromaticism and a pinch of minimalism. It's all handsomely produced and sung but terribly precious and overly palatable.
For purists, Gavin Bryars has raised issues of appropriation in his contemporary adaptations of fourteenth century Cortonese laude, but it is sometimes difficult to know how much of the material on Oi Me Lasso he has quoted and how much he has elaborated. In their original form, these sacred songs were written for unaccompanied soprano voice; one can be sure that the drones, passing dissonances, and instrumental parts are Bryars' inventions, and that he has reshaped the pure vocal lines to his own expressive needs.