Birthday Offering – Pièce d’occasion in one scene to choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton with music by Alexander Glazunov arranged and orchestrated by Robert Irving
A Month in the Country – Ballet in one act to choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton based on the play by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev with music by Fryderyk Chopin arranged by John Lanchbery
Les noces – Russian choreographic scenes to choreography by Bronislava Nijinska with music by Igor Stravinsky
Entrée – Tamara Rojo, Yuhui Choe, Helen Crawford, Sarah Lamb, Roberta Marquez, Laura Morera, Federico Bonelli, Alexander Campbell, Ricardo Cervera, Valeri Hristov, Brian Maloney, Johannes Stepanek, Thomas Whitehead
Variation 1 – Yuhui Choe
Variation 2 – Laura Morera
Variation 3 – Sarah Lamb
Variation 4 – Roberta Marquez
Variation 5 – Hikaru Kobayashi
Variation 6 – Helen Crawford
Variation 7 – Tamara Rojo
Mazurka – Federico Bonelli, Alexander Campbell, Ricardo Cervera, Valeri Hristov, Brian Maloney, Johannes Stepanek, Thomas Whitehead
Pas de deux – Tamara Rojo, Federico Bonelli
Finale – Entire cast
André Levasseur – Costumes
John B. Read – Lighting
Christopher Carr – Staging & Principal coaching
Gary Avis – Ballet master
A Month in the Country
Natalia Petrovna – Zenaida Yanowsky
Yslaev – Christopher Saunders
Kolia – Ludovic Ondivela
Vera – Emma Maguire
Rakitin – Sian Murphy
Matvei – Sander Blommaert
Beliaev – Rupert Pennefather
Kate Shipway (piano)
Julia Trevelyan Oman – Designs
William Bundy – Lighting design
John Charlton – Lighting design recreation
Anthony Dowell & Grant Coyle – Staging
Jonathan Cope, Grant Coyle & Anthony Dowell – Principal coaching
The Bride – Christina Arestis
The Bridegroom – Ryoichi Hirano
The Parents – Genesia Rosato, Alastair Marriott, Elizabeth McGorian, Gary Avis
Friends and Villagers – Deirdre Chapman, Ricardo Cervera, Helen Crawford, Itziar Mendizabal, Jonathan Howells, Brian Maloney and Artists of The Royal Ballet
Rosalind Waters, Elizabeth Sikora, Jon English, Thomas Barnard (singers)
Robert Clark, Paul Stobart, Philip Cornfield, Geoffrey Paterson (pianos)
Royal Opera Chorus
Natalia Goncharova – Designs
John B. Read – Lighting
CHristopher Newton – Staging
Christopher Saunders – Ballet master
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Tom Seligman [Birthday Offering]
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 30 June, 2012
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
This is a glorious Triple Bill indeed, offered by The Royal Ballet near the end of Dame Monica Mason’s farewell season. It comprises a trio of heritage works of the highest order: two superb Ashton ballets – Birthday Offering, his celebratory tribute to the company itself, and A Month in the Country, his brilliant distillation of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s play – and Bronislava Nijinska’s monumental Les noces, one of the towering achievements of twentieth-century dance and a precious jewel of the company’s repertoire.
Musically, it is Slav all the way: Glazunov’s sumptuous sonorities in Robert Irving’s arrangement and orchestration of The Seasons (1900) and his Concert Waltz No 1 (1893); John Lanchbery’s arrangement of Chopin, and Stravinsky’s extraordinary commissioned score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Tom Seligman indulged in the rich brocade and velvet sounds of the Glazunov, wallowing in the introductory waltz and delicately picking out the felicities of the seven ballerina variations. The Royal Ballet’s Music Director Barry Wordsworth then took over the baton for the remaining two works, expertly guiding pianists, soloists and chorus through the complexities of the Stravinsky, and delivering stylish orchestral support to piano soloist Kate Shipway who, alas, did not consistently please or seem at ease with the Chopin score’s many demands.
These three works are ‘pure’ Royal Ballet and it is to this company that the ballet world looks for the final word in requisite style – both Ashtons were created for it and Nijinska herself set her ballet on the troupe in 1966 at Ashton’s invitation, thereby rescuing it from oblivion. But all was not consistently well on the first night of this revival. Birthday Offering was last performed by The Royal Ballet in 1998 and it showed: the opening cast simply seemed overawed by both the technical and stylistic demands of this pièce d’occasion, unfamiliar with it as a work, careful and cautious where they need warmth and confident abandon. And well might they be nervous; nicknamed ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, Birthday Offering was a showcase for the seven ballerinas of the company in 1956, each dancer allotted a solo in which Ashton explored and celebrated her particular character and dance qualities.
The roster back at its creating is, by today’s standards, jaw-dropping: Elaine Fifield, Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova, Nadia Nerina, Violetta Elvin, Beryl Grey and Margot Fonteyn, all presented to great effect by a master choreographer. In this revival, only Laura Morera in Jackson’s spitfire second variation, all turns and changes of direction, seemed at home, the most Ashtonian of the seven, sailing through its demands with blithe insouciance. Sarah Lamb made a good job of Beriosova’s third solo, but lacks the warmth and expressive back it demands. Tamara Rojo as ‘Fonteyn’ certainly has technique to spare (far more than the role’s originator), but lacked the warmth and embracing quality the company’s prima ballerina assoluta possessed in spades, opting for an out-of-place imperious quality. Additionally, there was no chemistry between her and her cavalier, the doughty Federico Bonelli, so the pas de deux, a wonder of choreographic economy, did not sing as it might. Three cheers for the work’s revival, but not, as yet, for its performance, which showed how Ashton’s own company can now seem very uncomfortable in his choreography.
Les noces is a masterpiece from 1923, a paring-back to bare-bones of movement, entirely, brilliantly evocative of a simple Russian peasant wedding. Natalia Goncharova’s sparse, Spartan set and costumes are in perfect harmony with the choreographer’s vision, and Nijinska’s heavy, earth-based movements and sculptural poses remain the antithesis of the airy ballet aesthetic, a challenge indeed for classical dancers to engage with. This revival was almost ‘there’, lacking the final degree of weighty earthiness and betraying too many fluffs in the blocks of movement to satisfy entirely. It is fiendishly challenging for the dancers who count furiously as they cross and wheel and intersect to Stravinsky’s jagged rhythms. But it can be done immaculately; this company has performed it so, so the ragged moments are all the more disappointing. Too little rehearsal? I suspect things will settle. This is a precious possession and The Royal Ballet must ensure it is kept in pristine condition.
Entirely successful was the revival of A Month in the Country (dedicated to Sophie Fedorovitch and Bronislava Nijinska) in which Zenaida Yanowsky scored a personal triumph, returning to the stage after many months’ absence and re-establishing herself as a dancer and actress of uncommon sensitivity. There are some who carp that she is physically unsuited to the role, being far taller and leaner than its originator in 1976, the incomparable Lynn Seymour, but that matters not a jot – times move on and either a ballet is performed or it dies. What Yanowsky brings is her special qualities. Hers is a skittish, spoilt Natalia Petrovna, flirty and flighty, overtaken by events when the realm of her household of which she is queen, is blown apart by the arrival of her children’s handsome young new tutor. Yanowsky carefully etches the portrayal of a woman losing control and being overwhelmed by her feelings, Beliaev’s departure devastating her utterly. She phrases her dancing beautifully, making much of her tendril-like arms, carving the curves and arcs of the movement with care.
The tutor Beliaev is one of Rupert Pennefather’s best roles – he seems to relish its sub-fusc nature and the utter rightness of its choreography. The precision of previous interpreters (including the originator Anthony Dowell) was missed, but Pennefather’s depiction of a carefree young man, aware of his own attractions, slowly realising that his feelings for the mistress of the household are far deeper, was impressive. Emma Maguire, who impressed so much as Effie in La Sylphide recently, is a superb Vera, Natalia Petrovna’s ward who, she too, falls for Beliaev’s charms. Her acting is innocent, sincere and touching, her dancing precise and imbued with the quicksilver quality so beloved of Ashton. Ludovic Ondiviela danced Kolia, the family’s young son, with boyish impetuosity, Christopher Saunders was a bumbling gull of Natalia’s husband Yslaev, and Gary Avis was telling as her devoted admirer Rakitin, making much of his increasingly irritated interaction with Beliaev. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s beautiful, detailed evocation of the house remains an object lesson in stage design.
- Royal Opera House
- Further performances on 3, 4, 6 & 7 July at 7.30 p.m.