Thursday 18 February 2016

Strapless - Christopher Wheeldon triple bill at the Royal Ballet

Natalia Osipova in Strapless © ROH 2016. Photo by Bill Cooper
Natalia Osipova in Strapless © ROH 2016.
Photo by Bill Cooper
Christoph Wheeldon Triple Bill Arvo Part, Ezio Bosso, Mark-Anthony Turnage; Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares, Natalia Osipova, Edward Watson, Federico Bonelli, cond: Koen Kessels; Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Triple bill of ballets by Christopher Wheeldon

The Royal Ballet’s new triple bill of works by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, which we saw on its third outing on Tuesday 16 February 2016, includes one brand-new work and two further works which are new to the UK. Wheeldon’s Strapless is a new ballet to a specially commissioned score from Mark-Anthony Turnage with designs by Bob Crowley, it was teamed with the Royal Ballet’s new productions of Wheeldon’s After the Rain to music by Arvo Part (Tabula Rasa, and Spiegel im Spiegel) with costumes by Holly Hynes and lighting by 59 Productions, and Within the Golden Hour to music by Ezio Bosso, with costumes by Lynette Mauro based on the original designs by Martin Pakledinaz and lighting by 59 Productions.  

After the Rain featured Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares, Strapless featured Natalia Osipova, Edward Watson and Federico Bonelli, Within the Golden Hour featured Sarah Lamb, Stephen McRae, Lauren Cuthertson, Matthew Golding, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and Vadim Muntagirov. Koen Kessels conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in After the Rain © ROH 2016. Photo by Bill Cooper
Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares
in After the Rain © ROH 2016.
Photo by Bill Cooper
After the Rain started with Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa with soloists Sergey Levitin (violin), Kate Shipway (piano) and Andriy Viytovich (viola). Grey blue projections on the rear drop set off the cast of six (Marianela Nuñez, Thiago Soares, Claire Calvert, Nehemiah Kish, Itziar Mendizabal, Eric Underwood) who were clad in striking costumes whose colour was graduated from light to dark blue. Wheeldon responded to Part’s evocative and lightly scored score with dance of great precision in a crisply intense style which I very much associate with modern choreography for Stravinsky’s neo-classical ballets. But when the music moved to Spiegel im Spiegel the whole mood changed and relaxed. The backdrop became pink, and Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares reappeared with her wearing pink and with hair unbound, and with him impressively shirtless. The choreography was similarly transformed with the previous edginess replaced by a haunting fluidity as the engaged in a hypnotic duet.

Strapless is based on the events surrounding John Singer Sargent’s painting of Madame X, the infamous portrait of Amélie Gautreau where one strap of her gown was off her shoulder, as if more was to come. The resulting scandal broke Amélie Gautreau’s reputation (she had been something of a society It Girl) and led to Sargent’s leaving Paris. Wheeldon’s ballet was based on Deborah Davis’s novel about the events. The key personel were Amélie Gautreau (Natalia Osipova) and her lover Dr Samuel-Jean Pozzi (Federico Bonelli), John Singer Sargent (Edward Watson) and his lover Albert de Belleroche (Matthew Ball), plus Mme Pozzi (Kristen McNally) and .M Gautreau (Jonathan Howells). Wheeldon chose to tell the story in non linear fashion, intercutting the narrative of the painting being showed and finally unveiled, with the events leading up to the creation of the painting. It culminated in the unveiling with Amélie Gautreau being stripped of her finery. There was a final epilogue set in the modern day when Amélie Gautreau sees how famous the picture has become..

Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless © ROH 2016. Photo by Bill Cooper
Edward Watson, Matthew Ball and Natalia Osipova in Strapless
© ROH 2016. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score was richly romantic, combined with his familiar sense of energy. The result conjured the sights and sounds of 19th century Paris (even a Can-Can) without being a slavish imitation, and as a musical score it is something I would love to hear again. Written for a large orchestra, the saxophone featured heavily (a novelty instrument in the 19th century which appears in operas such as Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet) though I could have wished that the player had used rather less of the modern jazz-influenced vibrato.

The problem with historically based operas is that there are so many cast members with relationships to sort out (Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling has the same problem). Wheeldon did a wonderful job of letting us know who was whom, but we did not really care for them all and I did wonder whether a more abstract treatment might have worked. Osipova was brilliant as Amélie Gautreau, looking remarkably like the portrait and making Wheeldon’s neat and edgy choreography feel as if Amélie Gautreau had come alive. Edward Watson was the other lynchpin, creating a really passionate image of John Singer Sargent. There was a steamy love scene for Osipova and Bonelli, with Bonelli dressed in the familiar red robe from Sargent’s portrait of Pozzi. And there was a fascinating scene where Sargent paints Amélie Gautreau but is inspired by his lover Albert de Belleroche (Matthew Ball), again getting quite steamy. Definitely a piece to see again.

Finally came Within the Golden Hour to music by Ezio Bosso, with Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, Lauren Cuthbertson, Matthew Golding, Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Vadim Muntagirov. The music featured multiple movements by Bosso a contemporary Italian composer whose career has spanned pop and classical. Like the Arvo Part, the music was written for relatively small forces with Wheeldon using this as a structure on which to base his busy and, in this case, entertaining choreography. I have to confess that on this hearing, I did not find Bosso’s music anywhere like as rewarding as Part’s. Wheeldon’s choreography was far more playful than the first ballet, using the multiple movements to create a series of different tableau with various combinations of personnel. The results were attractive and intriguing and it may a joyful end to the evening.

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