Its something of a miracle that Kenneth Macmillan's choreography for The Prince of the Pagodas exists at all. The choreographer was interested in working on Britten's score, but the composer refused to help by making changes to the score. So, eventually Macmillan went ahead anyway, working with Colin Thubron to create a scenario that fitted the existing music. The basic problem is that John Cranko's original idea for the ballet, to re-create the world of the late 19th century Russian fairy-tale ballets, had ended up with far to much divertissement-like padding and rendered his final ballet unsatisfactory.
Macmillan's version was highly successful, and made a star of the young Darcy Bussell on whom the role of Princess Rose was created. But there was always the underlying feeling that there were moments when dance had been fitted to music, because it was there, and the drama still sagged. For this revival Monica Mason and Grant Coyle have persuaded the Britten estate to let them cut the piece. This means that, for the first time, the drama doesn't sag, the piece runs at a dramatic tempo throughout. This doesn't solve the problem that there is a slight mismatch at times between the relative emotional temperatures of music and dance, and that there are stray elements of Britten's musical narrative and leit-motifs which do not seem to march with Thubron and Macmillan's story-line. But these are relatively small points, Macmillan and his collaborators have created a potent dramatic ballet from one of Britten's most fascinating scores, his longest single orchestral score.
We attended the performance on Thursday 21 June when the cast was supposed to be Lauren Cuthbertson, Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather. In the event all three were injured (as was Ricardo Cervera who was due to play the King of the South). So we had Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Itziar Mendizabal and Ryoichi Hirano in the lead roles.
The young (not yet 20) Beatriz Stix-Brunell is American, trained in New York and at the Paris Opera Ballet, she worked in Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses group before joining the Royal Ballet. Stix-Brunell made her debut in the role of Princess Rose on 9 June 2012. She has a neat, pure style of dancing which suits her admirably for the more Ashtonian choreography that Macmillan produced for this ballet. She is remarkably poised and accomplished, whilst being rather touching; perhaps not quite as vulnerable as Bussell. Her dancing doesn't yet compel you to watch, which is a problem in this work, but certainly a dancer to watch.
She was partnered by Ryoichi Hirano. He supported Stix-Brunell admirably in the various pas de deux and was a brilliant salamander. His very litheness contributed to the salamander's choreography immeasurably, this combined with Britten's brilliant gamelan inspired music, made it one of the highlights of the evening.
In the pas de deux, Hirano and Stix-Brunell, though nicely partnered, didn't quite manage to make the choreography sing. Partly its the problem that with certain pieces of Ashton and some Macmillan, you have to do nothing beautifully and compellingly (just think of Anthony Dowell in Ashton's Cinderella). For these pas-de-deux, Macmillan deliberately refers back to the Petipa/Ashton line, doesn't get the man to throw the woman over his shoulders or between his legs. Hirano and Stix-Brunell were technically accomplished, but still learning how to make this choreography work for them rather than against them.
The Spanish dance, Itziar Mendizabal, was quite brilliant as the bitchy Princess Epine. This is a gift of a role for the right dancer, and Mendizabal has the height and the surface glitter and hardness in her technique to make it work. When she danced, she made you look at her, which is just what is needed.
Gary Avis was a touching Emperor, superceding all my memories of Anthony Dowell in the role. James Hay was simply brilliant as the fool, dancing all the fancy foot-work but also conveying that there was a lot more going on. Shame about the rather awful costume and wig though. The four kings (Andrej Uspenski, Valeri Hristov, Jonathan Watkins and Brian Maloney) were well matched and contrasted.
Barry Wordsworth conducted a superb account of the score from a very large Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Lets hope that the ballet gets revived again soon.