Carlos Acosta has tried to ensure that the awfully polite boys and girls of The Royal Ballet let go sufficiently for his version to take flight. He has been only moderately successful, a pervading sense of embarrassed reticence fills the air. Acosta has tried his level best and come up with some good ideas – the Prologue in which the eponymous knight sets-off on his quest for his Dulcinea, is made clear and touching by the inclusion of a vision of his beloved (the gracious Christina Arestis). However, no matter how cheeky the street urchins (very Manon), no matter how many holás and olés the corps de ballet is encouraged to shout out, no matter how broad everyone’s acting, the evening resolutely remains subdued. It has much to do with pacing, which could well pick-up after what was a somewhat hesitant First Night, but I felt that Acosta, who has no previous experience in mounting a full-length ballet, has not quite got the internal dynamic right as yet. Scene follows scene without a sense of mounting anticipation or excitement, and it is only the very last scene, which includes the old warhorse pas de deux, seen at every gala the world over, which gets the audience cheering. Certain elements are not welcome – the shouting by the cast and the inclusion of amplified Spanish guitars in the gypsy encampment scene are unnecessary intrusions into the art form.
Acosta has two rather heavy artistic albatrosses to carry about him: the first is Martin Yates's new orchestration of the score, which, even if bashed around a bit over the decades by a succession of composers, works in the theatre. Yates has rarefied the music, making it too polite and too clever in its use of Spanish sonorities. Russian Don Qs are broad and brash and the music fits that approach to perfection. Yates has, by refining it, sucked the life-force from it and fatally exposes Minkus's limitations as a composer. Secondly, the designer Tim Hatley, experienced as he is with theatre designs, produces his first ballet production and displays his lack of experience with an over-crowded set for the town square which is unquestionably handsome but cramps the action and a settingof outsize flowers and brambles for the Don's Vision Scene, which serves to dwarf the dancers. His costumes are handsome, but with a very mixed colour palette, crowd scenes become something of a jumble, and even the clean lines of the Vision Scene are obscured.
First-night nerves were all too clear, but what emerged was a generally well-rehearsed performance despite small mishaps. The level of dancing was competent without displaying brilliance; apart form the lead couple the exception was Laura Morera’s characterful Mercedes, displaying real character and, in the limited choreography given her, whiplash movement. In general, the company seem unwilling or simply not required to indulge in the extravagant back-bends and lunges which so characterise Russian productions, preferring a more straight-backed approach. Yuhui Choe and Beatriz Stix-Brunell were well matched and danced with verve as Kitri’s friends (dressed alas in a colour only describable as Windowlene).
Acosta himself danced Basilio, and while his boyish charm and cheekiness in the part remain undimmed, his dancing displayed limitations. He can still pack a balletic punch though, and it was Act One that saw him at his most impressive in technical terms, while he was seemingly tiring by Act Three. Marianela Nuñez, who has all the attributes for a perfect Kitri, was puzzlingly muted for much of the performance, clearly acting for all she was worth but without making much impression. In the final pas de deux she relaxed visibly into the material even if she opted for safer and less thrilling fouettés than those powered through by Osipova and Oksana Bondareva of the Mikhailovsky.
Will this production succeed where the two others have not? I remain to be convinced that Don Q is a work for The Royal Ballet – it remains, in my opinion, outside their stylistic comfort zone, despite Acosta’s considerable efforts. Other casts may bring more and the company will undoubtedly settle into it.
- Don Quixote runs until 6 November
- The production will be live-streamed in cinemas on 16 October
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk