Friday 3 June 2011

Royal Ballet Triple Bill

Last night we went to the Royal Opera House to see the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill, Frederick Ashton's Scenes de Ballet, Glen Tetley's Voluntaries and Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring. An interesting programme spanning the late 40's, 60's and 70's in choreographic terms, with each ballet being seen in its original Royal Ballet production.

Now here's a thing. If the English Opera Group was around today (and its successor did just about last into my opera going life-time), would they still be doing Britten's operas in their original productions? I think not. But somehow, this approach is acceptable in ballet, so that for the Ashton we got the very stylised 1940's look with a set which seemed to come from the background of a De Chirico painting. The choreography is a little to pointy-pointe for my taste, Ashton going too far in the direction of Balanchine. But more to the point is the fact that the Royal Ballet seem to be losing the ability to dance Ashton. Not so much technique, though there was plenty that was not quite right, but the sheer style. When I first started coming to the ballet the ballerinas were nearly all the generation trained by Ashton himself, now this is become more distant and the style is being lost. You can't help feeling that Monica Mason ought to arrange a 2 week intensive work-shop and have the whole company practising Ashton style before it is too late.

The difference with the Tetley and the Macmillan was very marked, though they might not have been technically perfect, the dancers were far more confident of the style. Both the two later works were, in their different ways, very stylishly done.

Glen Tetley's Voluntaries was created for Stuttgart Ballet with Richard Cragun and Marcia Haydee taking the lead roles, the same team who created MacMillan's Requiem and Song of the Earth. For me the 3 works all seem to live in the same universe, though of course Tetley's language and emotional world is different. But it is a terrific work, starting from silence with the lead couple (here Mariela Nunez and Rupert Pennefather) and concluding in the same way.

For me, the major problem with the work is the sound of the organ used in the opera house. An electric beast, it just does not sound like the real thing and has a blandly occluded sound, so much unlike the sound-world of Cavaille-Coll which Poulenc would have known. Also, it lacks a degree of power, part of the joy of Poulenc's piece is the way the organ can overwhelm the senses, and it doesn't here.

That said, Thomas Trotter played magnificently. I just had to keep telling myself that this was not Poulenc's Organ Concerto but Glen Tetley's Voluntaries and to stop worrying about the organ sound.

Though The Rite of Spring is more commonly come across in the concert hall, I always feel that it makes more sense danced, you can get a good feel for the structure of the piece. I first saw Kenneth Macmillan's version when Monica Mason danced her final performances as the Chosen Maiden (probably some 20 or 25 years ago). She was the original Chosen Maiden and it was amazing to see her performing the role 20 or more years after the first production. Here the role (the Chosen One) was danced by a man, Edward Watson, and he certainly danced up a storm. Macmillan's steps can sometimes seem contrived, but this performance took on an emotional power all of its own so that the movement seemed a natural outcome of the music. Sidney Nolan's designs remain stunning and some of Macmillan's stage pictures stay with me whenever I hear the music.

The playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth was exemplary, with The Rite of Spring receiving a tough, dramatic performance with lots of wonderful accents weighted down to earth.

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