wed 25/11/2020

The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty, Royal Ballet

A production that is as pretty as cakes but lacks any sense of good and evil

Critics did not cover themselves with glory after the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty in St Petersburg on a snowy January night in 1890: “We cannot help regretting the means chosen by the theatre directorate in lowering the standard of artistry of our ballet,” wrote one. Another: “Such spectacles attract neither a constant public nor a circle of educated adherents.”

Indeed, time and place change everything. More than a century later few ballets have a more constant public than Sleeping Beauty and none a more educated circle of adherents - it’s the ultimate theatre ballet, a manifestation of the most luxurious staging, the most diamond-cut choreography, the most replete and dazzling music. And it demands of any company performing it an extra level of classical readiness and theatrical ambition throughout the ranks. While the ballerina role is iconic, no less in technical finesse and individuality is required in a stream of solo roles for fairies and fairytale characters.

And so you must go into Sleeping Beauty with extra-high hopes for the production to make you gasp at the beauty, awe and mystery of ballet, and for those performers to step up to the plate and justify all this excess. The Royal Ballet’s current production is the third in a string of unsatisfactory stagings, and fear shows in the safeness and sentimentality of its design.

There’s no division visually between the inhabitants of the real world and the inhabitants of the magical world

With the palace sets based on Oliver Messel’s magnificent post-war production for Fonteyn, there could have been a chance here for a real fashion designer to break away from the sherbert colours and shiny Lycra of so much ballet costuming of today, even if going back to the Forties costumes themselves might have been a retro step too far. Those grand pillars and rococo gardens in Messel’s visions call out to be populated by individuals in their own personal taste in dress, as his own 1940s sketches were, and as that original 1890 St Petersburg one was. Some of us were lucky enough to see the Mariinsky’s brilliant reconstruction of Vzevolozhsky's haughtily individual costumes in their “authentic” staging a decade ago, where no fairy would be seen dead in a similar dress to another fairy. Yet here in the Royal Ballet’s we see not only all the fairies differentiated only by colour, but that all the colours and stylings are from the same cloth as the courtiers. There’s no division visually at all between the inhabitants of the real world and the inhabitants of the magical world.

And it should be a given that a Sleeping Beauty draws that line very strongly indeed, or the evening becomes merely an artificial experience, as the tale of warring good and evil forces, or reality versus fantasy - which Tchaikovsky has so powerful delineated in his music - flits past the audience’s antennae.

The great pivotal points of the story, when the staging should crackle and make our jaws drop, are Carabosse’s entrance, the Lilac Fairy’s casting of the sleeping spell over the palace, and the Prince’s awakening of the Beauty. None of these points in this production does anything adequate to the fairy tale: Carabosse is too pretty and her rats too cuddly, the Lilac Fairy - who should be a galactic, stellar divinity - rather awkwardly pulls her magic wand out of the back of a statue, and the awakening is marked merely by turning on some brighter light (though Mark jonathan's lighting now is an improvement). Misfiring as Maria Bjornson’s extravagantly off-kilter 1994 production was, it did certainly whack you in the eye with a sense of momentousness in each of these key places.

Here Peter Farmer's costumes are as pretty as cakes, and his shifting foliage for the prince's boat journey to the enchanted palace is delicious, but his stylistic response feels generic, not an individual step up to match the uninhibited variety of Petipa's pageant of dances and Tchaikovsky's music. This impression of safe familiarity also infected the conducting by Valeriy Ovsyanikov on opening night and again still last Friday; the notes and textures are all there in the rich playing of the Royal Opera orchestra, but there are more powerful narrative undercurrents to be found, and a sweeter, more introspective violin solo for Aurora to explain herself to than Peter Manning provided.

Two casts: on opening night, pale, delicate Sarah Lamb, unfairly exposed after a long injury to this supreme role which requires total stylistic immersion, total technical understanding, and a freer sense of music than she shows yet - but her last sequence of balances in the Rose Adage suddenly beamed beauty, and promised perhaps future greatness. Her prince, Ivan Putrov, has lost the sheen of his naturally refined style, showing little interest in his role. Both were outshone by Marianela Nuñez’s tenderly authoritative Lilac Fairy, Genesia Rosato's brilliantly gipsy-like Carabosse, and the detail and character in subsidiary performances by Laura Morera and Steven McRae, Yuhui Choe and the graceful and interesting young Sergei Polunin.

And then Friday - the skies blazed and the sun rose on a blessed Aurora, Tamara Rojo, whose dancing poured light upon us all, first softly and dewily, and then with increasing brightness and grandeur. This is a true ballerina of exquisite mastery in all departments, who understands every demand not only for herself in meeting the role's phenomenal limits, but the magical warmth that she must generate for the whole production. You could rhapsodise on about her time-stopping balances and spun gold of her pirouettes, but better to notice the wafting silk of her ports de bras, the generosity of the garlands she weaves with her arms around everyone on stage, from her parents to the wooing princes to the guests at her wedding.

In a piece of luxury casting her partner was Johan Kobborg. He is rarely seen with Rojo, since he is firmly established with Alina Cojocaru, but the two did first dance in the UK together at Scottish Ballet, and as the company’s two supreme classicists I was intrigued whether we would see the ne plus ultra of Sleeping Beauties. Well, they were, most of  the way through, a sublime and masterly match, a pairing intent on casting the greatest of balletic enchantments over us - until strangely the coda of the wedding pas de deux felt suddenly colder than required, a technical triumph rather than a mutual offering of their happiness. Laura Morera once again vividly created her own fairy tale in the Bluebird duet, this time with the deft José Martin - she must dance Aurora, surely. Helen Crawford’s low-key Lilac Fairy showed how important it is to cast this role with principal artists of absolute command.

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