Royal Opera House
29 November – 6 December, 2008
by Judith Cruikshank
copyright 2008 by Judith Cruikshank
Immediately before embarking on a long run of its dull and expensive “Nutcracker” (how is it that Peter Wright can produce such a sparkling version for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and such a bland, stodgy production for Covent Garden?) the Royal Ballet gave just four performances of Frederick Ashton's “Ondine”. This ballet was famously created as a showcase for Margot Fonteyn, and anyone who has seen photographs of the ballerina on holiday, frolicking in the sea, can easily see how suited she was to the role of a water nymph who falls in love with a mortal.
At the premiere in 1958, Hans Werner Henze's specially written score caused some raised eyebrows, so different was it from conventional ballet music. Fifty years later we can more easily appreciate its rich textures, and how it follows the action of the ballet and mirrors the different moods of the sea. It is also a tribute to Ashton's musicianship in that his choreography, whether dramatic action or divertissement, flows seamlessly through a score which is more symphonic in structure than those of say, Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev.
Tamara Rojo danced the first performance of this run, partnered by Edward Watson as the hero Palemon. Rojo has already shown that she has a firm grasp of the role, and reports suggest that she was fully on form. Making her debut as Ondine was Alexandra Ansanelli, whose second performance I saw. She is not the first American born and trained dancer to assume the role; Cynthia Harvey scored a notable success at the time of the 1988 revival.
Small and dark, with large expressive eyes and a strong, clean technique, Ansanelli is markedly speedier than most of her Royal Ballet colleagues, and this serves her well in dealing with Ashton's swift, darting choreography. She also makes excellent use of her hands, arms and upper body.
Ansanelli's Ondine has a wonderful sense of 'otherness', She clearly does not belong in the human world, which both intrigues and alarms her, as for instance, when she feels Palemon's heart beating under her hand. She has the innocence and curiosity of a child, and it is only in the last act that we sense the burden that the acquisition of a human soul has placed on her. And all this she shows us through her interpretation of Ashton's expressive choreography – there are no extraneous additions or superfluous dramatic overlay.
Her Palemon was the Bulgarian born and trained Valeri Hristov, still a First Soloist. He is, as the saying goes, tall dark and handsome; one of those dancers born – or fated – to play the Prince. His technique is sound rather than brilliant, but good line and a noble bearing compensate for much, and Ashton's choreography for Palemon appeared to be well within his range. In the first two acts he was somewhat reserved; clearly a well brought up young man, although prepared to risk much for Ondine. But this contrasted well with the total abandon of the final act. He craved Ondine's fatal kiss, seeking it hungrily.
Other roles were less impressive. Genesia Rosato looks, shall we say, rather mature as Berta, and this makes her behaviour in pursuing the lovers look like pure malice rather than a desire to retrieve what she had so casually rejected. Kenta Kura was an impassive Tirrenio, lord of the Mediterranean Sea, not helped by over elaborate facial make-up. And though he danced well enough I felt he didn't make enough of the oddities in Ashton's writing, and I would have wished for more sharpness and attack.
The same could be said of the dancers in the last act divertissement; there seems to be a general desire to smooth everything out and make it pretty. Much like mass catering, where everything is under-seasoned so as to be acceptable to the majority, so that the dish looses its particular flavour and originality.
By contrast with Ansanelli, the female corps de ballet failed to shine and Ashton's distinctive lyrical style seemed applied rather than absorbed – like an unfamiliar shade of lipstick. One can only hope that they will be more at home in his style by the time of the second run of performances in the spring of next year. Someone needs to look again at the lighting, especially in the shipwreck scene where the silk cloths representing waves seem to be a muddy brown rather than sea green. And a second look at the women's costumes in Act I wouldn't come amiss, particularly in respect of the fabrics used, nor am I a fan of Berta's opaque blue tights.
Finally, are we supposed to believe that all the guests at the wedding of Berta and Palemon are their oldest living relatives, presumably on a day out from their retirement home? Generally speaking I salute the use of older people on the stage but I would suggest that white tights, worn with a short velvet jacket are not the most flattering garb for the average gentleman who has passed his fortieth birthday.
The management of the Royal Ballet seem to believe that only full evening ballets appeal to a wide audience which is probably one of the reasons why we have been blessed with this revival of Ashton's lovely ballet. Missing from this season's roster though is "Romeo and Juliet," usually a given.
However, anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms could have seen and heard a very different take on Shakespeare's lovers last month when Mark Morris brought his "Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare." The starting point for this production was the discovery and reconstruction of Prokofiev's original score by the composer's biographer, Professor Simon Morrison.
I suppose I should admit straight away that I positively detest the score as we normally hear it. To me it seems pompous and bombastic and totally out of sympathy to Shakespeare's story of young love. The reconstructed version was far more acceptable; multi-layered, full of shimmering texture and far more original. It was wonderfully played by none less than the London Symphony Orchestra who gamely abandoned the spacious platform of the Barbican Concert Hall for the cramped conditions of the Barbican Theatre's pit.
One doesn't usually think of Morris as a narrative choreographer, but he succeeds remarkably well in conveying the action here. His choreography is strongest in the ensembles where he puts his early experience with folk dance to excellent use. He is less successful with his dances for the lovers, though I thought this pair – Rita Donahue and David Leventhal – were less than ideally matched in a physical sense. But generally their duets seem to lack structure and there is too much aimless yearning and running about.
The device of having Mercutio and Tybalt played by women works surprisingly well, especially in the case of Mercutio (Amber Darragh) who has the more rewarding part and the best choreography. Morris also departs from custom in having Paris played as a bullying lout, just the kind of man who would invade the bedroom of his bride-to-be with an assortment of acrobats brandishing bottles of dubious liquors, houris and carpet-vendors – one of the episodes in Prokofiev's original scenario.
Best of all is Lauren Grant as Juliet's busy, believable nurse and I also admired John Heiginbotham as Friar Lawrence who for once is presented as a fully rounded character with a real setting and the opportunity to reflect before offering either advice or potions.