Early in 1950, he was allowed to travel to Italy with a Soviet delegation, where he was inspired by the Roman Coliseum to compose a ballet on the life of Spartacus. Working with the author and critic Nikolai D. Volkov (1894-1965), Khachaturian assisted in the construction of a libretto that was based on two main sources, which had also been consulted by Karl Marx: the Roman civil war history by the Alexandrian civil servant and barrister Appian (2 A.D.), and the biography of Crassus by Plutarch (1 A.D.). These two sources described the story of a Thracian prisoner of war who led an uprising out of a gladiator school in 73 B.C., raised an army of peasants and other marginal societal groups, and defeated nine Roman legions and generals before finally being defeated by Roman general Crassus. Volkov gave Spartacus a fictional lover named Phrygia, and Crassus a fictional lover named Aegina. Aegina embodies the moral depravity of the Roman Empire, while Phrygia stands for the freedom and good of the common people. Khachaturian finished the score in 1954, but the original has never been performed. At its premiere in 1956 in the Kirov Theatre, the choreographer Leonid Jacobson (1904-1975) cut the work into a series of friezes, using a pantomime-like style of movement similar to the Isadora Duncan school. The production staged by Igor Moiseyev in 1958 with a huge ballet corps and three extra scenes won Khachaturian the Lenin Prize in 1959. The staging most often used for performances today is the one by Yuri Grigorovich in 1968, and it is the one performed on this DVD.
The ballet is divided into three major acts. The first act has 20 scenes, and centers around the introduction of Crassus, Spartacus, Phrygia, and Aegina as the main characters. The plot focuses on the slave market, where Phrygia and Spartacus are separated and sold. Act 1 ends with Spartacus initiating the revolt in the gladiator’s barracks, and the oath they all take to fight the Romans. Act 2 centers around one of the two major battle scenes in the ballet, where Crassus and Spartacus fight each other, but both survive the encounter. Spartacus’s election as the revolt leader, and Aegina’s depravity towards the revolution, are also depicted. Act 3 is the huge final battle scene between Spartacus and Crassus, where Aegina is able to seduce some of Spartacus’s lieutenants and discover his battle plans. At the end of the ballet, Spartacus is killed and there is a huge victory celebration for Crassus in Rome.
The performance on the DVD was magnificent. The costumes, staging, scenery and dancing were wonderful to watch. Given that most people remember the excellent movie version of this story which starred Kirk Douglas, this ballet version is also a visual experience and adventure. The four main dancers/characters kept the attention and focus of the drama, supported by the supporting cast of dancers. It is a dramatic retelling of an actual historical event, recreated by a Soviet composer which attempts to depict the continual trials and repression of the common people by bureaucratic and depraved governments.
Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas