Carlos Acosta has tweaked the classic Petipa choreography and seeing it so soon after Mikhailovsky Ballet’s performance of the original gave me a good chance to spot the improvements he has made. A new prologue helps the story make a little more sense but the main change has been to loosen up the choreography, allowing a smoother more naturalistic feel. Minkus’s music has also been arranged and re-orchestrated by Martin Yates. It was a great improvement on the earlier performance, although I am not sure whether that was down to the new arrangement or the superb playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Vasko Vassilev. Either way, there was more humour in the music where appropriate and more passion when required. I saw the matinee performance so didn’t see the star casting led by Acosta himself. Still, Alexander Campbell and Roberta Marquez were excellent as the leads, although the latter was almost outclassed by Laura Morera’s superb performance as the street dancer.
An astonishing evening. No-one knew this would be Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru’s final performances for the Royal Ballet until about two days before. I probably couldn’t have got a ticket if it had been known about when booking opened. The true story is about Crown Prince Rudolf, his love of guns and passion for women leading to the tragic final night in his hunting lodge at Mayerling where he injects himself with morphine, shoots dead his girlfriend then himself – a sort of combination of Sid Viscious and Kurt Cobain with their fame but not their music. The music in this case is that of Liszt but, as arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. Its combination of pomposity, sweetness and musical fireworks may not be great music but it is perfect for this Austro-Hungarian melodrama.
The greatness of this ballet comes from astonishing choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, danced perfectly here by Kobborg and Cojocaro with two marvellous comic solos from James Hay as Prince Rupert’s cab-driver/entertainer Bratfisch. MacMillan takes classical choreography and adds less conventional moves to create a passionate intensity. Kobborg and Cojocaru, partners in real life as well as this ballet, danced with their own passion, adding an extra dimension for this final performance that drew a very long standing ovation, surrounded by heaps and heaps of flowers. I will be very surprised if I see any ballet performance this good for years. It has taken two days to write this review – it is still inadequate.
“36 minutes of pure joy,” said the woman beside me at the end of Symphony in C and I couldn’t put it better: Balanchine’s choreography is pure elegance. The first movement was slightly ragged but could be excused as both principal dancers were late substitutes – all the other three were perfect.
The new work I was looking forward to was Raven Girl. The story by Audrey Niffenegger is darkly, magical and the score by Gabriel Yared matched it well. Wayne McGregor’s choreography seemed good – from what I could see of it. A screen used for projection across the front of the stage, a grim, grey set and gloomy lighting combined to give the effect of standing in front of someone’s house, looking through their window and net curtains to see the ballet on a black and white television in the front room. The only time I could really see the dancers properly was at the curtain call. Maybe it was OK in the stalls.
This was the worst audience I have ever had to cope with, chattering over the ballet and drowning out the orchestra when they were playing during the scene changes: I almost left at the end of the first act but I am so glad I didn’t. I wasn’t sure whether the first act was poor, which was why people were talking, or whether people were talking because it was poor. On the whole, I think the noise spoilt a performance that I could have enjoyed. However, the second act (often performed in it own right) was stupendous and people stopped chattering. The biggest cheer was for the corps de ballet who were mesmerisingly good. The third, short, act was fine but the three acts almost seemed to come from three separate ballets. The music by Minkus was pretty feeble but the second act was well worth the price of admission on its own (the second day running I’ve had a great £12 ticket).
This was absolutely magical. The music, scenery, choreography and special effects all blended to create my most enjoyable visit to the ballet this year. There were five cast changes, including the key roles of Alice and the Knave of Hearts. It says a lot about the overall quality of the Royal Ballet at the moment that I could’t have cared less; Yuhui Choe and Nehemiah Kish were both excellent! The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon is particularly fascinating, blending classical ballet with a Busby Berkeley style routine for the Waltz of the Flowers and even a tap-dancing Mad Hatter (danced superbly by Donald Thom). A real classic and ten times better than the RB’s recent Swan Lake.
Some people may think it is odd that I can rate a travelling company such as Vienna Festival Ballet more highly than the obviously much more skilled Royal Ballet. As I can’t go out much at the moment, I decided to look at the very different experience of big and small theatres and venues.
Skill levels. Obviously the big companies can draw on more highly skilled actors and dancers than the little ones but sometimes the very best actors love working in small theatres (e.g. Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in “All That Fall” last year) and some small theatres can draw the very best actors, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond. It also takes a different sort of skill to work on a big stage in a big theatre – OperaUpClose can get extremely good singers who may not have the power to fill the Coliseum or ROH.
Musical scale. Most of the best concerts I have been to have been in small venues such as the JACK Quartet playing Xenakis’s astonishing Tetras Quartet at the Wigmore Hall or the amazing Japanese band Nissennenmondai at Upset the Rhythm. You can never see that level of virtuosity in a symphony orchestra or in a stadium, unless it is on the video screens.
Practice makes perfect. Travelling companies will recruit for a specific production and then play it night after night, raising their performances to levels they would not initially be able to achieve. Oddly, the use of pre-recorded music can help too as it is absolutely the same every night. I love the use of a full orchestra by the Royal Ballet or English National Ballet but the tightest performance by the ENB I have seen was their collaboration with Flawless in “Against Time,” a touring production danced to a recorded backing.
Friendliness. Small theatres and venues offer a far more intimate experience than the bigger venues and sharing the experience with a few dozen people can make you feel a part of something very special whereas larger places can become very impersonal.
I loved Balanchine’s Apollo with Rupert Pennefather in the title role: far better than the disappointing production by ENB last year. It still had the silly air guitar (or was it air lute?) for Apollo but the others abandoned their props quite quickly, although the choreography was unaltered so that Itziar Mendizabal as Polyhymnia held her hand rigidly under her face as if still holding her mask.
My ticket said the other works were “new Wheeldon” and “new Ratmansky.” Sadly the “new Ratmansky” turned out to be “24 Preludes” with music by Chopin. 24 separate pieces of music in 44 minutes! Only three (by my count around the 17th 18th and 24th) were long enough to give the music and dance the chance to develop anywhere, so that’s 21 saccharine pills and a bit of sugar. The Chopin had its usual effect on me, leaving me yawning and having to force my eyes open. I knew I’d never stay awake through the subsequent 30 minute interval so had to go home to bed and missed the Wheeldon; a great shame as it was set to music by Britten. Still well worth the ticket for Apollo alone.
Ravel’s “la Valse” which opened the programme is a rich, intoxicating piece of music, matched by equally intoxicating ensemble dancing:
After this cocktail, Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais was a teaspoon (just six minutes) of sweet, soothing cough medicine, a beautiful pas de deux from Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. We then had the equally short, fizzing Alka Seltzer of Voices of Spring with Alexander Campbell and a very mischievous Yuhui Choe who seems to have become my favourite principal dancer. I had not expected to enjoy a dance to the music of Johann Strauss this much; his music may be slight but it’s perfect for dancing to. After the interval came the first of the longer works, Monotones I & II set to the wonderful music of Erik Satie. The orchestration did elaborate unnecessarily on Satie’s very simple music but, particularly in Monotone II based on the well-known Gymnopédie 1, the abstract simplicity of the dancing almost had me in tears. Then came Marguerite and Armand by Liszt:
I don’t think I am a true balletomane (ugly word for the love of something so beautiful) as I cannot enjoy a ballet if I do not like the music and, as I said on my blog yesterday, I cannot appreciate Liszt. Ideally, I want music that I could enjoy in concert. This very much applied to the Ravel and I would have been quite happy to listen to the Massenet and Strauss as short pieces in a mixed programme. The Satie would also be worth listening to in concert, although I think I prefer the original solo piano version. I admit I am in a small minority on this; thinking back to concerts I have loved, this one by Nissennenmondai leapt to my mind as one of my all time favourites. Imagine a ballet to that!
It was Mozart who wrecked music, not Schoenberg. I heard Goodall attacking Schoenberg on Start the Week a while ago as making music inaccessible to people like me with no musical education. However, he speaks as someone with such an education and has no idea what music sounds like to us. I grew up thinking classical music was boring but gradually came across music that had some of the excitement of pop music, such as Mahler’s symphonies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then in the sixth form we watched a series by Peter Maxwell Davies on modern music. His ensemble, Fires of London, played Schoeberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and I was knocked out. I later discovered that there was some wonderful music before classicism too after a friend took me to see Monteverdi’s Orfeo and I’m really looking forward to Charpentier’s Medea from the ENO on Friday.
I was thinking about this after noticing that tonight’s Ashton mixed bill by the Royal Ballet includes ballets by both the wonderful Satie and his antithesis Liszt – will the latter send me to sleep like the Chopin nearly did? Satie was one of the first to break out of classical formality, abandoning keys and time signatures for much of his music. He made sure every note mattered whilst Liszt never made do with a single note when he could squeeze in five. Goodall’s list of ten great pieces of music includes Liszt but not Satie. To give him credit, he does include Stravinsky’s wonderful “les Noces” which I saw last year and went back to watch again the following evening.
What a gorgeous ballet which I’d never seen it before. Frederico Bonnelli was excellent as Eugene Onegin, brilliantly haughty in the first act, gradually realising his mistake as he ended up killing his friend Lensky (Nehemiah Kish providing a very good replacement for Valentino Zucchetti) in a duel after flirting with his wife Olga (the always very enjoyable Yuhui Choe).
Picture by Bill Cooper with permission of ROH
Finally, he realises he has lost the woman he had loved after all – Laura Morera as a beautiful Tatiana, shown above dancing with her new husband, Prince Gremin, cleverly danced by Gary Avis to show the age of the character while losing none of the grace of his duet with Laura Morera. I am not a fan of Tchaikovsky’s music in its own right but it works beautifully as an accompaniment to ballet. The production was faultless but other aspects left a couple of little niggles. Does a 95 minute ballet really need two 25 minute intervals and, given that so many of the seats that us ordinary people sit in have restricted views, was it necessary to make so much use of the front corners of the stage? All in all the Royal Ballet remains the best value night out in London.