Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
November 23 to December 7, 2007
by John Percival
copyright 2007 by John Percival
What is (or are) “Jewels”? In his book “Complete Stories of the Great Ballets”, George Balanchine, deviser and choreographer of the show — created for New York City Ballet just forty years ago and now newly mounted for the Royal Ballet — gives his answer to the question always provoked: is it a three-act ballet or a trio of one-acters? Covent Garden over-cautiously gives both versions in its programme book; my own view is that only the décor ever really held it together. But Mr B says categorically that “this is a dance ballet in three parts to music by three different composers. The music for the three parts is very different and so are the dances.” So how often have you heard of “a ballet” (singular) with such disparate scores? John Neumeier did it successfully, and for good reasons, in his “Midsummer Night's Dream”. Kenneth MacMillan did it in “Anastasia” and look what a mess that made. They both had stories. And maybe calling “Jewels” the first three-act plotless work helped sell tickets; maybe it still does.
A more vital question: where does this rate in Balanchine's output? Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet, tells us in her introduction to the programme that “Balanchine was one of the 20th century's greatest choreographers” (we won't argue with that) and that “Jewels is one of his finest achievements”. That's more debatable, and I note that even the redoubtable Nancy Reynolds in her invaluable book about NYCB “Repertory in Review” suggests that “despite many moments of great beauty and ingenuity it was not the very best of Balanchine: Emeralds was a bit bland; Rubies could grate on the nerves; Diamonds had stretches of the commonplace.” Decide for yourself, but even of the few works by him which are or have been in the RB repertoire, I'd give higher marks to ""Agon," "Apollo," "Ballet Imperial," "Concerto Barocco," "Duo Concertante," "The Four Temperaments," Mozartiana," "Prodigal Son," "Serenade" and "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" at least.
Emeralds is danced to music by Faure: fragments from the incidental scores he wrote for Pelleas et Melisande and for Shylock. French music because (writes the choreographer) “if this part of the ballet can be said to represent anything at all, it is perhaps an evocation of France, the France of elegance, comfort, dress, perfume”. In this Balanchine goes along with most commentators. But then when we move to Rubies, he says that others seem to have found it representative of America. “I did not have that in mind at all. It is simply Stravinsky's music” [the capriccio for piano and orchestra] “which I have always liked and which he and I agreed to use”. And finally Diamonds to four movements from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 3, about which he neither confirms nor contests the comparison widely made with the style of the old Maryinsky Ballet in St Petersburg.
The staging, on behalf of the George Balanchine Trust, is by Elyse Borne (Emeralds) and Maria Calegari (Diamonds), both assisted by Karin von Aroldingen, with Rubies by Patricia Neary, who was in its 1967 premiere. We are using the over-fussy original costume designs by Barbara Karinska; Jean-Marc Puissant has devised new settings which seem to me too elaborate in their incidental trimmings in spite of being mainly rather bare. And the playing of Fauré and Stravinsky under conductor Valeriy Ovsyanikov was decidedly stodgy.
Moreover, the standard of dancing varied quite a bit through the evening. There are two complete casts, by no means on the same level, the effect being complicated by late substitutes in many roles. (Even so early in the season, there are already uncomfortably many dancers ill or injured.) With Emeralds, the first-night cast was much the better, Tamara Rojo leading it beautifully: her dancing smooth, elegant, perfectly shaped and timed; and Leanne Benjamin as the other principal not far behind. Too bad that their partners Edward Watson and Ivan Putrov, with Steven McRae joining them, couldn't achieve the simple authority Balanchine expected from the men. Misses Marquez and Galeazzi proved negligible leading the other cast.
In Rubies, of course Carlos Acosta's fans cheered him but he didn't look right — let's assume it was an unflattering costume — and he danced jerkily, far from his best. (This hasn't been a great season for him: a concert programme at Sadler's Wells with dancers from the Cuban National Ballet proved disappointing in choreography and performance.) And Sarah Lamb made nothing of the main female role. However, Alexandra Ansanelli on the second night proved as sparkling as might be expected from her NYCB background; and her substitute partner Ricardo Cervera showed himself both trim and swift. Zenaida Yanowsky found herself doing the secondary solos not at all badly both times I went.
Surprisingly Diamonds, which in my experience has sometimes looked the weakest part, came off well in both interpretations. The ensemble dancing was better done here, and the leading couple really worked brightly together each time. Tiny Alina Cojocaru in the lead had lost two intended partners, and stylish Rupert Pennefather finally taking over looked a giant beside her, yet they managed well in the double work and their solos. The alternate cast, Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares, are a regular duo on and off stage; she is a lovely ballerina and he displays her qualities to perfection.
I must say that we have seen in "Jewels" better done by companies from New York, Paris and St Petersburg. The weakness is that Balanchine in this work needs more help than the Royal as a totality has yet been able to give him.
Photos (all by Johan Persson):
First: Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov in "Emeralds."
Second: Leanne Benjamin in "Emeralds."
Third: Alexandra Ansanelli, Ricardo Cervera in "Rubies."
Fourth: Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in "Diamonds."