Showing posts with label Swan Lake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Swan Lake. Show all posts

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A firebird as a swan

It's been noted everywhere, since Natalia Osipova hit town the other day, that the Russian prima ballerina assoluta-in-the-making isn't necessarily a natural Odette. She's more firebird than swan, setting the place so much alight as Odile in Act III that it's no surprise everything goes up in smoke at the end. On the other hand, why should Odette be a moaning minnie? A swan is strong, fierce and near-supernatural, a favourite symbol of mythical purity and grace, the creature that leads Lohengrin and seduces Zeus. And, incidentally, a swan can break a man's arm.


Osipova's swan is Odette with a modern twist: fabulously musical, she goes into slow motion with those wonderful ritardando spins, or chooses an arabesque angle all her own, her Bolshoi training's super-extension a vivid contrast with the expert ensemble but contained style of the Royal Ballet corps. We may want to see her leap, but she wants to act - and for good reason. Her Odette is slow to trust yet quick to love, which makes her betrayal all the more tragic; and Osipova gives us an inspired moment before she throws herself into the lake that is the instant Odette cracks. Visibly, before she embarks on her final mime, she realises she can take no more: now her mind is made up and nothing will stop her. Acosta's Siegfried follows her, of course. But it is Rothbart's death that we see on stage, and the ferociously marvellous Gary Avis seems to drown in a turbulent lake of vengeful swans. We experience our heroine and hero's last moments vicariously through his.

Here is Anthony Dowell coaching Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Christopher Saunders in the climactic pas de trois - from the Royal Ballet Live webcast last April. (I love how the pianist gets totally carried away - and the thing that Dowell describes as "the Judy Garland moment"...)



Back to Osipova & Acosta: it was the Black Swan pas de deux that sent everyone nuts, and with good reason. Osipova works the audience with the instinct for timing, and virtuoso teasingness, of a prize comedy actress, though her interpretation is certainly not about laughs. In her solo, she goes into a phenomenal series of turns and extensions with that trademark slow control; then seems about to do it again on the other side, until, with a glance into the auditorium, seems to say "nah, maybe not...". The smile she flashes at the conclusion would have set the house aflame even if the sequence of fouettes - and whatever else it was that she did in those famous spins, which were doubles with knobs on - had not already done so. Acosta's whirls themselves drew a loud whoop of joy from somewhere in the stalls in mid flow: like Papageno, I think he could have won a few auditorium marriage proposals given the chance. He is a dancer who, like Dowell, can own the stage with the move of one arm and can hover in the air for what feels like a whole minute when allowed, in the Black Swan finale, to leap. If only they would bring back Siegfried's Ashton solo in Act I...

Speaking of which, it hasn't escaped any critic's notice that this production is a wee bit past its sell-by date. The lurid designs, for a start. The schlock-Gothic Act III is more Rocky Horror Show than royal ball. Rothbart looks, as owl, like a cross between Rod Stewart and, unfortunately, Jimmy Savile (what has Rothbart been doing to his troop of bewitched maidens anyway?), and later, in the ballroom, more like George Michael on a really bad day. However powerful Gary Avis's acting - and no character dancer could be more so - it's hard to take Rothbart seriously in this get-up.

But though it's the designs that cause the most complaint, I have to add my usual bug-bear about the limited benefits of supposed "authenticity". Going back to the original text as far as possible means that we lose all the old RB production's gorgeous Frederick Ashton contributions (except the Neapolitan Dance, which would probably cause a balletomanes' riot if chopped). In Act I, it's not only Siegfred's solo that I miss, but also the old Ashton waltz. David Bintley's choreography for the waltz, apparently based on an original-version 'Dance of the Stools' - the wooden sort, I hasten to add - is irritating, fussy and chaotic and the maypole adds nothing at all except clutter. Meanwhile Act IV is missing some of my favourite music - the clarinet-led, Russian folksongish lament - jettisoned in favour of a pretty but interminable waltz, when there are waltzes galore elsewhere already. Also, Ashton's Act IV made spectacular use of possibly the most dramatic piece in the whole score, which does not come into this version at all. The current staging does win on drama in Act IV - but at a price.

But hey. We weren't there for the production, but for Osipova - and it was her night all right. I was sitting next to a dance critic of long experience and some renown who remarked that bringing in a star like Osipova is a move that could inspire the whole company, showing them all what's really possible. And going home, I bumped into Brian, My Ballet Teacher, who was in ecstasies, saying that Osipova had delivered moments in the role as he had never seen them done before. Brian has lived and breathed classical ballet all his life - he used to dance leading roles with London Festival Ballet and his classes are gloriously poetic and Vaganova-inspired - and he knows what he's talking about.

The orchestra, under Boris Gruzhin, was on mostly excellent form - what a treat to hear such luxury Tchaikovsky - and it's hard to imagine the violin solos played more wonderfully than they are by concertmaster Vasko Vassilev, whose deep amethyst tone is now an essential part of Royal Ballet Tchaikovsky classics as a brand. Please, Kevin O'Hare, couldn't we have him go on stage for a curtain call?

The Mikhailovsky Ballet - of which Osipova and her usual partner/husband, the utterly incredible Ivan Vasiliev, are members - is coming to Britain in the spring. Doing, among other things, Swan Lake. If the First Couple of Dance are there, buy, beg or steal a ticket.






Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.


We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.



Tuesday, April 10, 2012

ZAKHAROVA AND BOLLE IN SWAN LAKE

I'm clocking off, so here is something to keep you busy for a bit: the complete Swan Lake, starring Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle. Stay tuned for exciting piano news when I'm back.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Lang Lang of ballet?

The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China's version of Swan Lake is back in town tonight and could make Rudolf Nureyev turn in his grave. I took a sneak peek and my preview of the show is in today's Independent. It's incredible, but is it art? And does that matter?