Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La Valse mixed bill: Royal Ballet @ Royal Opera House, London

28 November 2005


Gloria (Photo: Dee Conway)

I found the juxtaposition of ballets in this mixed bill rather ill-balanced, to the detriment of its overall effect. Before two one-act ballets by Macmillan – My Brother, My Sisters and Gloria – the first of the three divisions of the evening consisted of Frederick Ashton’s La Valse and the season’s only world premiere, Alastair Marriott’s Tanglewood.

The dizzying effect of Ravel’s great waltz is heightened by Ashton’s choreography, from the moment when the curtain rises on a smoke-filled room of waltzing couples to its descent on the dancers still moving round and around in the final bars of the piece. I remember with fondness the performance of the ballet at the Closing Gala of the Royal Opera House in 1997, when the theatre was preparing for refurbishment, when La valse set the evening off to a frenzied start.

But this performance in the Royal’s latest mixed programme was somewhat lacklustre. Perhaps the problems derived from the pit, where Barry Wordsworth failed to capture the sinister edge of the score. Yet the dancers, too, seemed to be having difficulties: they were rather unrehearsed apparently, with the men in particular out of synch with one another, and an accident befell one of the soloists. However, Andre Levasseur‘s designs remain a treat, marvellously evocative of the fateful fin-de-siècle atmosphere of pre-war Vienna.

Marriott’s Tanglewood has many good things to offer. He caters well for the particular talents of the two lead ballerinas, Leanne Benjamin and Darcey Bussell. Benjamin is wonderfully fluid as ever, gliding effortlessly across the stage, and her pas de deux with the excellent Martin Harvey (replacing Federico Bonelli) was memorable. Bussell’s technique remains a marvel, her famous extensions still impressive and striking arabesques to match. Her movement with three of the male members of the company showed her at her best, pirouetting between them with ease. Yet Ned Rorem‘s violin concerto score (virtuosically played by Vasko Vassilev) came as a shock after the Ravel, dumbing the effect of the latter.

Two one-acters by Kenneth Macmillan provided the second and third parts of the evening. My Brother, My Sisters is returning to the repertory after many years, powerful but depressing. In short, five sisters and a brother play disturbing incestuous games; one of the sisters is bespectacled and the ‘First sister’ is jealous of her, and ends up by killing her. It’s a grim story, especially in Macmillan’s elaboration involving ghostly masks and various taunting movements. The performance was magnificent, however, with Edward Watson justifying his acclaim by giving tremendous emotion and energy. Apart from his breathtaking leaps, the imposing aspect of his contribution was his sexual domination of his sisters, conveyed with unnerving realism. Tamara Rojo was typically giving as the bespectacled sister; her elder sister was danced with menace by Mara Galeazzi.

Finishing things off, a solid performance of Gloria. Macmillan’s First World War ballet, set to Poulenc’s Gloria, has been much repeated in recent seasons, but this performance justified its return. This portrayal of soldiers re-experiencing No-Man’s-Land is rendered the more poignant with the use of the Gloria as the score, and both the Royal Opera Chorus and particularly the soprano Judith Howarth – luxury indeed – brought the musical aspect of the evening to a higher standard. Carlos Acosta also added some class to the dancing as the main soldier, and Alina Cojocaru and Thiago Soares were sympathetic in their pas de deux. In all a curious, if uneven, mixed programme.

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