The Royal Ballet – The Dream & Song of the Earth

The Dream

Titania – Alina Cojocaru
Oberon – Steven McRae
Changeling Indian Boy – Dylan Standen
Puck – Valentino Zucchetti
Bottom – Jonathan Howells
Rustics – Sander Blommaert, Erico Montes, Liam Scarlett, Jonathan Watkins, James Wilkie
Helena – Itziar Mendizabel
Demetrius – David Pickering
Hermia – Christina Arestis
Lysander – Valeri Hristov
Peaseblossom – Akane Takada
Cobweb – Emma Maguire
Moth – Iohna Loots
Mustardseed – Romany Pajdak
Fairies – Artists of The Royal Ballet

London Oratory Junior Choir

Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Felix Mendelssohn, arr. John Lanchbery (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – Music
David Walker – Designs
John B Read – Lighting design
Anthony Dowell, Christopher Carr – Staging
Gary Avis – Ballet master
Ursula Hageli – Ballet mistress
Lesley Collier, Anthony Dowell – Principal coaching

Song of the Earth

The Messenger of Death – Carlos Acosta

First Song – Rupert Pennefather, Alexander Campbell, Ricardo Cervera, Bennet Gartside, Ryoichi Hirano, Kenta Kura

Second Song – Tamara Rojo, Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson, Samantha Raine, Ryoichi Hirano, Alexander Campbell, Ricardo Cervera, Bennet Gartside

Third Song – Sarah Lamb, Leanne Cope, Lauren Cuthbertson, Samantha Raine, Ryoichi Hirano, Alexander Campbell, Ricardo Cervera, Bennet Gartside

Fourth Song – Lauren Cuthbertson, Deirdre Chapman, Samantha Raine, Leanne Cope, Iohna Loots, Emma Maguire, Romany Pajdak, Ricardo Cervera, Alexander Campbell, Kenta Kura, Brian Maloney, Michael Stojko, James Wilkie, Valentino Zucchetti

Fifth Song – Rupert Pennefather, Ricardo Cervera, Bennet Gartside

Sixth Song – Tamara Rojo, Rupert Pennefather, Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson, Samantha Raine, Reirdre Chapman, Ryoichi Hirano, Ricardo Cervera, Bennet Gartside, Alexander Campbell, Leanne Cope, Iohna Loots, Emma Maguire, Romany Pajdak, Brian Maloney, Michael Stojko, James Wilkie, Valentino Zucchetti

Katherine Goeldner (mezzo-soprano) & Toby Spence (tenor)

Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Gustav Mahler (Das Lied von der Erde)
Nicholas Georgiadis – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting
Monica Mason, Grant Coyle – Staging
Christopher Saunders – Ballet master
Jonathan Cope, Donald MacLeary, Monica Mason – Principal coaching
Grant Coyle – Notator

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 1 February, 2012
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Alina Cojocaru as Titania (The Dream, The Royal Ballet, February 2012). Photograph: Dee ConwayIn recent years at The Royal Ballet one has not been able to escape the impression that the company gives better performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets than those of Frederick Ashton. Why that has been the case is hard to identify, except perhaps that the latter is that bit further away from the dancers in time. Revivals of some of Ashton’s greatest creations have been dutiful and have not concealed the effort involved both to get around the often tricky choreography and, almost more importantly, the requisite style. In the most recent double bill of great works by this country’s two finest classical choreographers, it is for once Ashton who has been best served. The pairing of his 1964 The Dream with MacMillan’s 1965 Song of the Earth is particularly felicitous, the former a distilled narrative with a stage picture brimming with lavish costuming and an evocative and detailed set courtesy of David Walker, the latter a pared-back vision with the plainest of backdrops and the simplest of costumes. Choreographically too, the contrasts are illuminating, both choreographers taking the classical idiom and bending it to their own, distinctive purposes – Ashton constructing a work of the finest filigree, MacMillan painting with consciously broad brushstrokes of gesture and pose, both delving deep into the human psyche in their distinctive ways.

On the opening night of this revival (the 215th performance) The Dream shimmered as it has not done for many a season, indeed, the performance ranks as one of the best I have seen in 30 years of ballet-going. All elements in this near-perfect distillation of Shakespeare were sagely selected, not least in a performance of genuinely heart-quickening brilliance from Steven McRae as Oberon, the King of the Fairies. As most of the country now knows, first-cast Oberon was scheduled to be Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian renegade whose arrival at The Royal Ballet had stolen McRae’s thunder somewhat. They are very different dancers – as evidenced when they shared the male lead in Ashton’s Rhapsody last season – but McRae is in no way Polunin’s inferior; indeed, his intelligence and sensitivity have always been in a different league from the Ukrainian’s. Suffice it to say that Polunin’s absence could in no way be felt in this performance: McRae’s Oberon – mercurial, capricious, spiteful – was superbly drawn, and I cannot remember the fiendish choreography executed with such precision (nowhere more so than in the dizzying Scherzo) and, so importantly in Ashton, in true style. This was a performance to treasure.

McRae seemed to energise Alina Cojocaru, a fine Tatiana already, but now more careful of the requisite luscious épaulement and bends and exhibiting a heavy sensuality – this is a quality too often missed by those fooled by Ashton’s Victorian fairyland setting; the smell of sex hangs heavy in this wood. Cojocaru threw herself into the final reconciliation pas de deux (to Mendelssohn’s exquisite Nocturne) with true abandon, her body yearning for that of Oberon, the quarrel over the changeling boy forgotten in the atmosphere of mutual desire. The pairing of these two dancers in this ballet made it work as it has not done for many a year.

Not to be outdone, the young first artist Valentino Zucchetti dazzled as the cheekiest, breeziest and most nonchalant of Pucks. He has the ideal physique for this role, energy and technique by the sack load, and an engaging stage persona which makes one laugh with delight. This is a notable career advancement for this immensely pleasing, likeable and talented artist who has caught the eye in many corps de ballet and soloist roles, and here he threw himself with abandon and clear delight into the part of Oberon’s spritely sidekick. The Scherzo, already distinguished by McRae’s superlative dancing, had the added pleasure of Zucchetti’s – they made for a fine combination. Elsewhere the four mortal lovers judged their comedy with finesse, making them genuinely amusing, and even the rustics, prone to being overplayed and overdone, worked well, with Jonathan Howells an engaging and sympathetic Bottom. The corps de ballet skittered pleasingly as the attendant fairies, displaying care with and sensitivity to Ashtonian style; in this they were ably supported by the Royal Opera House Orchestra who rewarded Barry Wordsworth with an accurate, idiomatic rendition of the score; even the children’s chorus was precise and in tune. In short, this revival of The Dream pleased greatly, an immensely satisfying evening which was reassuring in that The Royal Ballet can, still, dance their Founder Choreographer’s work like no other company.

Carlos Acosta as The Messenger of Death & Tamara Rojo (Song of the Earth, The Royal Ballet). Photograph: Bill CooperStrangely, Song of the Earth, which has enjoyed successful and idiomatic revivals in recent times, was somewhat out of focus on this first night. It is a difficult work, an hour of concentrated emotional intensity, marshalling large forces and requiring a central trio of uncommon subtlety and expressivity. Often, it is only after the first song that the ballet starts to pull into focus, yet when this did occur, it was not long-lasting. Matters were not helped by a lack of common musicality among the men in particular with Rupert Pennefather’s Man, Carlos Acosta’s Messenger of Death and the gentlemen of the corps rarely together – even the four-hander Fifth Song rarely saw the quartet moving as one. This detracted immensely from the power inherent in shared movement; the women fared better, showing greater care. Pennefather was uncommunicative – it is well to remember that the role was first danced here by that great artist Donald Macleary (who coached this revival) and there is more to the role than blankness. Acosta, by contrast, can count The Messenger of Death as one of his most successful roles – he is implacable rather than sinister, a constant presence, a reminder of what we must, as mortal beings, all eventually face – his focus on The Man, whom he eventually ‘claims’, was intense, and his physicality in the role remains impressive. He was matched by Tamara Rojo’s keenly felt Woman, who inhabits the part – the embodiment of love, devotion, grief. The orchestra played well, responding to Wordsworth’s nuanced conducting, and of the vocalists, Toby Spence’s incisive contributions impressed. The mezzo-soprano Miss Goeldner should not stand so far into the stage when singing – she obscured a key moment just before the final tableau as the Man returns to the stage sporting a mask like that worn by the Messenger of Death.

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