|La Fille mal gardée
Widow Simone – William Tuckett
Lise – Marianela Nuñez
Cola – Carlos Acosta
Thomas – Christopher Saunders
Alain – Jonathan Howells
Cockerel – Paul Kay
Notary – Alastair Marriott
Notary’s Clerk – Paul Kay
Hens, Friends, Villagers, Harvesters, Grooms – Artists of The Royal Ballet & Students of The Royal Ballet Upper School
Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Ferdinand Hérold arr. John Lanchbery – Music
Osbert Lancaster – Sets & Costumes
John B. Read – Lighting
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Friday, April 20, 2012
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As temperatures dropped and the rain fell outside the Royal Opera House, the warm, sunny glow of Frederick Ashton’s incomparable La Fille mal gardée warmed the souls of us all once more on the first night of this most recent revival. It is good to report that nearly all was well – this most charming of works wove its magic once more, the audience delighting in the extraordinary flow of choreographic and narrative inventiveness. It is truly a masterpiece and, even more rare in the ever more po-faced realm of ballet today, a comic masterpiece to boot, having made audiences laugh and sigh contentedly since its first performance in 1960.
These current performances are dedicated to memory of the late Alexander Grant, who died at the end of September last. Grant was, in essence, one of Aston’s muses, creating many memorable roles for the choreographer, and it was to him that Ashton left Fille on his death. For first night, The Royal Ballet called upon a highly experienced cast not least of whom is the ever-joyous Marianela Nuñez who has a particular affinity with soubrette roles. That is in no way a slight, but rather a compliment, for it seems sometimes that each and every female dancer now sees herself only as a sleek-limbed Swan Queen and has little interest in the spunky heroines that the audience love and laugh along with – it is a rich seam of dance to mine: Lise in Fille; Swanilda in Coppélia, Poll in Pineapple Poll are all peaches of roles but require a dancer with both strong technique and great character, and who isn’t afraid to act.
Nuñez has all these qualities in spades and, in addition, exudes an infectious joie de la danse, her smile unforced and genuine. She is mistress of the demands of this particular role, exulting in the high airy jumps needed for a part created by the airborne Nadia Nerina. She is also intensely musical, and on many occasions, not least in the ‘Fanny Elssler’ cornfield pas de deux, ‘played’ with her music, dancing ‘within’ rather than ‘to’ it. Her Lise is certainly a headstrong little miss, brimming with character and illuminated with many personal touches – she loves her mother, but, as with any teenager, cannot wish to get away from her; her exasperation at having to dance for the widow in the last farmhouse scene was true to the adolescent desire to be somewhere else (here in the arms of her swain Colas!).
Carlos Acosta’s Colas is a known quantity, and while he may not observe all the niceties and details of Ashtonian style, the role itself is robust enough to stand up to a little stretching. Acosta plays the village jack-the-lad well and makes Colas first cousin to Franz in Coppélia in his swagger, although, unlike him, has eyes only for his beloved. He and Nuñez clearly work extremely well with each other, and their pas de deux were distinguished by a real bond.
William Tuckett is most welcome as a Guest Artist as the Widow Simone – he is among the finest exponents of the role, certainly not pretending to be a woman, never ‘dragging’ it up. A mighty fine comic actor, he infuses the part with real maternal love, a somewhat grumpy character and a heart of pure gold; his cornfield Clog Dance was fresh and funny, indeed many of the gags that pepper this richly conceived ballet worked splendidly, the audience readily and spontaneously laughing out loud. Tuckett makes the role his own, as any true artist must do, and his personal touches were true to the spirit of the work – that he made a split second eyeing from behind of Valentino Zucchetti’s well-filled breeches both register and be intensely funny is a testament to his skills.
Jonathan Howells’ simple boy Alain (Alexander Grant’s own created part) was a little disappointing. It is difficult not to spill into caricature but there were moments where I felt Howells could have ‘toned down’ his portrayal to greater effect, not least in his ‘show-off’ solos for Lise. There was much to please but greater pathos would have been welcome. The role of Alain suffers from the accretions which have built up over the years – there are some details now missed and others changed from what they were originally. On almost every occasion they detract from the part a wholesale return to the default position set by the original cast, as evidenced by the forthcoming DVD release of an early performance, would be most welcome.
The corps de ballet danced with real sense of Ashtonian style – the depth of the bends executed by the harvesters in the first act are as a test of this, and they swooped as they should, and throughout their contributions were characterised by pliant torsos and sharp, neat footwork.
The orchestra, performing a score which is extremely familiar to them, were alive to Barry Wordsworth’s direction and delivered a fine rendition of John Lanchbery’s witty rearrangements of Hérold’s melodies, which are beefed up with some Rossini here and some Lanchbery there. Several casts are to follow Nuñez and Acosta and certainly all will bring their qualities to the roles – Fille is the perfect vehicle.