Month: April 2016

Ratmansky’s Swan Lake

Alexei Ratmansky‘s Swan Lake was always going to contain moments which stood out. Swan Lake is perhaps the ballet one comes to know best as a ballet fan, and is perhaps the text most in people’s minds when they think “Ballet”. Any changes to the text or story will stand out, diverging from one’s favoured version or favourite moments. One watches these revisions for those moments of surprise, and to enjoy a work successfully and consistently executed with artistic integrity and vision. (Perhaps secretly we hope to see that really “it was better in the old days” too?)

The work was indeed consistently executed by the leads and corps of Zurich ballet, to a good standard –  of whom more later – however the text drew attention to itself, and not altogether to the benefit of the full dramatic picture.

Evolution tends towards gradual modification for continued success (if not full “survival of the fittest”) and in art no less is true. In the course of a theatre artwork’s life there might have been a paring down or amplification of drama, a change of artistic cadence, dramatic tension, or other alterations which bring either beauty or narrative clarity to the piece. Ideally both. Not all artworks are untouchable, and ballet since the mid-Nineteenth century has been palimpsest rather than Authorised Version. (One imputes authority to where one wishes to set store by it.)

With Swan Lake, no less is true. Any choreographic adjustments to fit those intents will have been inherited by us – around one hundred and ten years remove from the first (revival?) performance of the work. Revisions since 1895 may have been due to personal presence of any dancer (“I’ll just do a penché arabesque here, Mr Petipa? or perhaps a bourée here?”) and may too have been to the betterment of drama. What we are used to, is let’s face it, a text which feels standard, and which works well and is largely recognisable from Birmingham in the UK, to London, to New York or Paris or Milan. The story and process of the ballet don’t vary too much.

What does this revised, reconstructed work lose and gain? It loses more than it gains.

It clutters the crucial Act I Scene II pas de deux with many Swan Maidens, and I could not help thinking of The Trocks’ Benno (Andrei Cozlac), who (Trocks-style) catches Odette in those famous trust falls I so enjoy, which here are thus absent. What should be intimate and loving here feels instead like eavesdropping. With an audience on-stage, the romance becomes public and our private thoughts on love – as a private pairing – grumble slightly. The mind cannot quite countenance a display of undying love unfolding with Siegfried’s mate and Odette’s girlfriends in tow.

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Kapitonova and Jones as Odette and Siegfried.

It also seems the 19th century predilection was not to dispose of dancers by filtering them into the wings to leave the stage clear for feats of balletic grace, but to use them as living frames, on three sides of the stage. In Act I, left, rear, right of stage was full of lines of bobbing heads, fifth position arms going up and down, changing postures of boys and girls while the Pas de Trois capered away. Admittedly this in fact links well with Ivanov’s same use of Swan Maidens in the white acts, and it is to Ratmansky’s credit to have through-composed this use of corps de ballet throughout. I imagine in an era before film that these pictures of a full stage in synchronisation were vivid and impressive. To modern eyes, and perhaps purposefully (or successfully?) so, they seem quaint.

A little more fatally, Ratmansky’s rehabilitation of Sergeyev’s notated version means that Siegfried’s character reverts back to a supporting role, rather as he would have been at the time the ballet was written.  Hints of his interior world – whether through acting or dancing, are noticeably absent, and this absence was keenly felt. As such his hope when finding revelation of Odette that his subconscious prayers have been answered, seemed less moving and the romance as a whole felt distant.

For those who are interested, herewith a catalogue of specific changes:

The maypole and stools from the now defunct Royal Ballet Swan Lake (they share the same reference text) were present, but the use of stools rather limited. If anything these variances from our known productions show how much was not recorded in the Sergeyev Collection’s archives. Clapping here was loud and rumbustious and streamers dropped from the maypole charmingly. The villager boys did little almost mincing bourees and “running on the spot” reminiscent of the famous four cygnet routine later on.

Odette’s evasive pirouettes timed to Tchaikovsky’s music were not in evidence. Instead at those moments, she stood like a 1920s silent movie star, hand on brow, one hand outstretched as it to say “oh no! away!”.

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Fay Wray or, Odette vs. Siegfried

 

 

This was storytelling which stressed human feelings: Odette as woman, not chimera. It was lighter in poetic ambition, knowing itself to be a fairytale and as such it seemed to be asking for our indulgence. No longer was Odette a swooning naif, an ethereal creature doomed by cosmic forces, punished by cruel magic. She was just a princess. It felt odd.

The Swan Maidens have poinytails and little headpieces. Their tutus are older fashioned and there’s white feathers all over. This device makes them seem – as with Odette – more woman, than otherworldly creature. Their hair flops around. There’s little ghostly serenity, they’re more like Busby Berkeley than beautiful birds.

Odette doesn’t transform into a swan at the end of Act I, Scene II, and flutter her arms in lush Vaganova wings facing or away from the audience. She is borne away by Rothbart, abducted as if a slave in a harem.

Siegfried doesn’t “discover” Odette before the Pas De Deux, nor lean over and unfurl her wings. She just walks on-stage from the wings.

Odile’s variation breaks not with Odile appearing to confront/kiss Siegfried but with her grasping his knee and doing a deep arabesque. She ended the variation with curious brises and a chain of echappés. The act also contained a male variation for Siegfried I had not seen before.

Sets seemed oddly clean cut and austere, almost too modern and out-of-place. Jérôme Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, lovely.

There was, as one can see, much I noticed absent. And yet, some joys too*.

Of the dancers, the standard was high. Viktorina Kapitonova‘s feet were pinprick sharp at the end her white act variation, tempi swift. Her Odile was a striking contrast to her Odette. Alexander Jones was a gallant partner, but if only he had been given more space to, yes, emote!

Noteworthy was Giulla Tonelli‘s dancing in pas de trois. There were assemblies of steps which demanded speedy precision. Some of these were new to me, and she sailed through them with charm. So too Yen Han tackled the writing with appetite.

The Neapolitan (Meiri Maeda, Wei Chen, Lou Spichtig, Christopher Parker, Giulla Tonelli,   Surimu Fukushi, Marie Varlet, Shlomi Miara) started rather leaden, but this was misdirection. Ratmansky’s revision allowed for a thrilling, breakneck accelerando under Rossen Milanov‘s baton, the dancers keeping up with no problem.

The final Act was perhaps Ratmansky’s investment bearing best fruit. Odette is framed by her maidens, as if a stone in jewelled lozenge setting. The picture of arms and sorrow beautiful.

The “storm building” music was absent, Siegfried ran on-stage without any musical build-up. This anticipation and subsequent poetic music of his entrance  is for me one of the best moment in the whole ballet and I regretted it was not here.

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Odette framed by her maidens. (C) needed.

Yet after this, the drama went from slow bubbling brook to a surging torrent. The doomed lovers embraced to a cymbal crash, and Odette resolved to die. The tug of love and desperation was definitely tear-jerking and I have not seen this tragic deliberation done so powerfully before. I was truly caught in the reality of their fairytale fate. Those moments redeemed the whole show. It was as if here Ratmansky was free to give a modern voice to the work, and if it was really as the ballet was danced in the Nineteenth century, then sensibilities don’t change, and the heart is constant, from city to city, and time is nothing. The poets know this.Here, Ivanov’s poetry sang.

 

Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty  succeeded, I think, because it is a happy story and because it is not a narrative ballet throughout. Swan Lake cleaves to a traditional form of drama as lesson and journey (or just plain story) whereas Sleeping Beauty knows itself to be (in the kindest, most gorgeous sense,) beautiful frippery. Beauty bore the revisions better by wearing them more lightly.They weighed this Lake down a little.

Swan Lake matters, and Ratmansky respects it. He may have undertaken this ballet with the intent to do full justice to Sergeyev, Petipa, Ivanov. I just think that “historically consistent” may not be as enjoyable to modern eyes. As a reconstruction  it has merits: as a proclamation of aesthetic dissent (in its demands for lower legs, less acrobatics, more demure dancing) the same. As a project wholesale its rewards were for me, mixed.

 

 

NOTE:

  • And a disappointment. For all this ceaseless chasing of the mimetically Nineteenth Century, that there was shown a video Odette boureeing in pain, when Siegfried swears love to Odile. Such a shame.
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Lohengrin, Bayerische Staatsoper, March 31st 2016

I had booked for Klaus Florian Vogt, in the title role of this, one of his fêted roles. I was disappointed to see he was to be replaced. Burkhard Fritz was an unknown singer to me, but by the close of this show, I was won over, indeed, moved by his performance.

Here was a Lohengrin of humanity – and it worked. Fritz’s is not quite the angelic mein of Vogt, the paladin straight from Monsalvat, not the stolid crusader one imagines Robert Dean Smith (another replacement) may have done , nor the dream(swan)boat of Jonas Kaufmann. My fellow opera go-er friend likened him more to looking like a psychiatric nurse. The tracksuit with silver stripes and the blue t-shirt are a world away from more traditional productions. (I recall footage of Domingo in full armour off Youtube…). Director Richard Jones shies away from this imagery, and produces instead a cogent work which moves right to the core of Wagner’s concerns. In the hands of Fritz, the work was done good justice. He doesn’t have the strongest, nor the loudest voice but that’s not his selling point. He made up for any quibbles about his voice by investing his performance with sincerity and belief. the text flowed through him, and the libretto was given depth by virtue of nuance, perhaps more instinct than from study. Partly this may be because he was rather a last minute choice, without much time to prepare and partly too, because Mr Fritz is a stage animal, with good stage instincts. The performance was full of splendid moments.

I like Jones’ staging, where a house is raised almost before an audience’s eyes – much easier to build than a castle! – as it links the two lovers together, and becomes something they share. This Lohengrin’s love for Elsa was pure and strong. He kissed her on the forehead in gentle tenderness when in the house and laid down a cot with the light of hope and promise on his face. The remorse he felt  at Telramund’s slaying was shattering to see.  Knowing his life at Brabant over, we saw his sorrow as he knew that cot would be empty forever. We saw him take it down and then raze the house with fire. The interior journey, its movement from joy then in to pain was fully human, and if not quite in keeping with the idea of a pure Knight of Faith, then forgiveable because affecting, in keeping with Wagner’s setting of a doomed love.

Whereas Vogt often sings”In fernem land” as if witnessing the beatific, a vision as Wagner intended (Nelsons helps here of course), and Kaufmann’s care for cadence and attack work to suggest true nobility, Fritz brought forth from within himself memory, love, a saudade of a kind, and a grief at losing Elsa. His hands held together in contemplation, resolve and prayer, Fritz drew us all to him, and to his story (except the gentleman behind me who noisily cleared his throat as the aria was a few line young.) When remembering his father Lohengrin hugged the invisible form of the King to himself; one saw the grail before him and knew he had seen Monsalvat and loved it, and at the fatal utterance “bin Lohengrin genannt” his voice cracked (with sorrow, not force or shaky technique) at “bin”. Unfeigned, I think, and more powerful for it.

Summoning his swan (“Mein lieber Schwan”) he knelt at front of the stage over the pit and beckoned to its imaginary form, as it came closer he stroked it in affection and love. This was a man for whom Lohengrin the man and Lohengrin the opera mattered, and as such, it mattered for us.

Edith Haller as Elsa had an agile, youthful voice perhaps chosen for its potential match with Vogt. Some greater intensity of acting would have been good to have had, but her pairing with Fritz worked fine.

Günther Groissböck as the King was sonorous and one empathised with his conduct, his difficult position of leadership. Petra Lang seemed a little underpowered when she was not declaiming (but her declaiming “Gott?” was rather chilling!). She could do this role in her sleep I think, and certain critics might charge her with doing so, lately. Thomas J. Mayer as Telramund her husband gave  a strong performance, but not perhaps as evil as I would have liked. Notable for me was one of his henchmen, Tim Kuypers, who lent sincerity to his role and belief in the libretto. A stand-out performance, and a singer to keep an eye on.

Lothar Koenigs‘s conducting was of a generally high quality, but I would have enjoyed a more numinous accent to the opening of the whole work, and some more celestial shading at moments needing it.  (I don’t ask much, right?) The choir of the Staatsoper performed well, but some acting was variable, as was their “you’re on stage” discipline. Shuffling feet and wiping noses may be natural but can be a bit distracting! I enjoyed the fanfare trumpets being distributed around the house, aurally involving the audience, and it was a pleasure to see Utz and Jones’ intelligent staging of this magical text unfold before my eyes. Worth the trip.

Giselles – Cuthbertson, Bonelli – April 2 2016 (plus two other casts)

This was a Giselle full of fine moments and dramatic momentum. Lauren Cuthbertson is already spectrally pale, even as a peasant girl. One quickly realised that this was perhaps the frail, congenitally fated girl of the libretto, doomed to have a sad end, sword or no sword.

Her skips at her entrance were full of life and easy in their appearance of light grace, Cutbertson throughout proving herself a gifted actress. In the “cross dance” where the villagers form a charming rotating whirl, she looked giddy with love and happiness as she sought her man. Her delight in the moment was real and joyous. Her reaction to being made Queen of the Vintage by the assembled village was a beguiling “who, me?”;  her little hops on points in her small variation before the Queen were invested with joy and almost a coy pleasure at her own abilities, and her character’s love for her two-timing Loys/Albrecht was genuine.

Albrecht himself (Frederico Bonelli) was here played as rather an entitled cad. His dismissing of his squire  (Tomas Mock) with a penny from his coinpurse encapsulating his disdain for the lower class – except when pretty, female, young, like his Giselle. He and Cuthebretson made a beautiful couple.

Her “mad scene” (so common in opera of the era) was well done, the image of a shattered life showed in her expression. When she removed her hands from her face, and her face came into sight, she resembled almost a pale porcelain doll – a bit creepy in fact. One saw that her balance of mind was truly affected, forever. Her death scene and the moments leading up to it were fantastic, her moment of expiration clear and tragic. Bonelli acted grief well. The tumult around the events was given urgency by the fine corps de ballet.

As a point of fact, I must single out the remarkable Mayara Magri for her work here. Her acting, even as “just a villager” is superb. She is a true asset to the company. In narration of Berthe’s “beware the Wilis!” narrative, I had noticed her shivering in fear, terrified (I thought it improvised, but she does it at each performance, and yet it works every time). In her “come on, let’s dance!” moments with her village beau, or in amplifying onstage events by a glance, or a smile, she is pitch perfect. The corps here shared this same well honed ability to believe in the stage events and to reinforce their believability.

I noticed now how much Peter Wright favours dry ice for stage effects, and I am grateful he has used it. In his Swan Lake it is a memorable stage picture to see Swans emerge from its serene mask. Here, atmosphere in the Gothic woods, and subtle ethereality in the entrance of the wilis. Credit must go to revival lighting of David Finn, after Jennifer Tipton‘s original.

Claire Calvert‘s Myrtha was chilly in mein, but her shoes were rather squeaky. The two Russian ladies in front of me shook their heads in censure. I think Ms Calvert is a little too petite for the role, perhaps too favouring the a terre more than jetes and the writing for this role. This comment not to the diminishment of her conviction in the role, which was never less than full.

Wilis themselves were supernaturally “as one”. Drilling from either ballet mistress Samantha Raine or just repetition of performances brought a shared precision that was a delight to see. Bennet Gartside as Hilarion was excellent, his dance to death full of desperation and appeal. One felt sorry for him almost, but myth and fairytale has a way of punishing everyone, bad guys especially.

Memorably fine was the moment Giselle made a protective cross in front of Albrecht. For proportion, as an aesthetic picture, beautiful. In its being, it was invested with a hope and love almost palpable, and clarion clear: Cuthbertson’s face uplifted in hope, Bonelli’s fixed, a challenge to Myrtha who retreated from this unity of souls. Love defeating evil: rather the epitome of Romantic art. I am moved just recalling it.

Bonelli’s subsequent entrechats were high and brisk, his panting and exertion probably real but adding to the effect. The moment the bell tolled, Wilis and Giselle looked to the sound as one. I have rarely seen the parting scene done so well. Giselle as wisp, as dream. Albrecht hoping he might retain her embrace, that she might live.

Cutherbertson produced the little “pense-à-moi” marguerite flower at the end truly from nowhere, itself a magical moment. Bonelli’s expression was one of pain at her loss, then wonderment, then redemption. A strong showing from him, from everyone.

The cheers all received at curtain were well deserved. I join them here, in celebration.

 

Bonus material!

Prior to this performance I had seen two other casts: Marianella Nuñéz and Vadim Muntagirov (March 22), and Steven McRae and Iana Salenko (March 19 matinee).

McRae and Salenko gave an effortlessly technical tour-de-force as one would expect.  I recall well McRae’s”wafting lifts” of Salenko in the Act II pas de deux, which achieved an illusion of ballon and weightlessness the other couples didn’t quite manage.  It helps that she is only five foot two or three of course. Salenko once more showed her skill for the adagio, which is not to say her skills elsewhere are minor!

I would have enjoyed a meaner Hilarion (Valentino Zuchetti) but I think Myrtha (Helen Crawford) was perhaps technically  the strongest I have seen of the three casts, and her revulsion at the pair’s love was well drawn.

Berthe was Kristen McNally, and her mime was chilling, clearly phrased and lucidly performed. I think she may have just “beaten” the other cast’s Elizabeth McGorian in the spooky stakes – and for subtle hairpin removal! I believe she may well be the company’s most gifted character artist (aside from the wonderful Gary Avis…)

I didn’t quite feel the romance there, but McRae kept the story alive and moving, his acting was especially good. It must be difficult to produce that type of grief and loss each night, and he did well.

The pas de six went by splendidly, James Hay catching the eye for his security of technique and well placed execution. His variation truly gave the appearance of effortless flight. Beautiful to watch. Matthew Ball drew the eye too, by virtue of his height, and because of his strong abilities in the brief dual male variation. Coordination from all was excellent.

The pas de six cast on March 22 was luxuriant: among them, Yuhui Choe, Francesca Hayward, Alexander Campbell, Marcelino Sambé, Yasmine Naghdi and Luca Acri. Campbell released his inner Bluebird at times, Choe and he were delightfully musical. Sambé was impressive in his jumps as ever, and Hayward dancing charmingly throughout, fascinating to watch next to Naghdi. Acri full of élan was icing on that balletic cake, rich and enjoyable fare.

And of course, Marianella Nuñéz and Vadim Muntagirov were our leads. Nuñéz has I believe cited Giselle as a dream role for her, after being celebrated as a great Myrtha. Here she was every bit the vivacious peasant girl in Act I.In the mad scene she really drew the story up a level or two, hair flying all over in a mania of pain. Her Giselle died rather loosely though. I liked Cutherbetson’s hand and arm outstretched, which Salenko shared.

Muntagirov’s “check my new threads!” mime was beautiful in itself, his puffed out chest sent his  long line flowing, and beautiful. Those same finely crafted hands were used to great effect in his Act II variation, some of the finest dancing I have seen for a long time. These classical roles really suit him. Itziar Mendziabal‘s Myrtha had a wobble to start, and was felt a bit rushed, and I wonder how happy she was with her dancing afterwards, but as with all other Myrtha’s I have seen, she definitely suited the role when acting it.

Wright’s production is a pleasure to see, and regularly graces Covent Gardens stage. There are still a few shows left at time of writing, and it is sure to return. I recommend it.