Fascinating Poulenc and refreshing Stravinsky in Royal Ballet’s triple bill.

Stravinsky and Poulenc: Thomas Trotter (organ), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Ballet, Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 28.5.2011 (MB)

Stravinsky – Scènes de ballet

Frederick Ashton (choreography)
André Beaurepaire (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Christopher Carr (staging)
Gary Avis (ballet master)
Ursula Hageli (ballet mistress)
Lauren Cuthbertson, Sergei Polunin (principals)
Poulenc – Voluntaries
Glen Tetley (choreography)
Rouben Ter-Arutunian (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Bronwen Curry (staging)
Ursula Hageli (ballet mistress)
Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Valeri Hristov, Ryoichi Hirano (principals)

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Kenneth Macmillan (choreography)
Sidney Nolan (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Monica Mason, Christopher Saunders (staging and coaching)
Steven McRae (principal: The Chosen One)

This made for an interesting triple-bill musically, with revealing connections and contrasts. Poulenc owed a great deal to Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, of course, though he could rarely help but supplement it with a dose or two of naughtiness and/or Romantic longing. Stravinsky, meanwhile, was represented by two extremes, though one could add a good few more, of his balletic output: the Scènes de ballet, one of his most lightweight works, and The Rite of Spring, that twin solar plexus of twentieth-century music, to supplement Pierrot lunaire in the description so generously bestowed by Stravinsky himself.

One thing I realised immediately was how much Scènes de ballet benefits from being seen as a ballet. Even the most fervent Stravinskian would be unlikely to claim that he listened to the score that often, but it seems a good deal more inspired when staged, especially when as excellently choreographed as by Frederick Ashton. Neo-Tchaikovskian – and neo-Petipian – elements remain, but are subsumed into a distanced relative abstraction, which seems very much to take its leave from the rhythmic cells upon which Stravinsky bases his score. There is, unlike The Rite, no narrative as such, yet one should be equally wary of speaking of purity, or absolutes, whether concerning music or choreography. Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin acquitted themselves very well as the leading couple, their performances cutting to the heart of the (skewed?) balance between strictness and fancy that lies at the heart here of Stravinsky’s and Ashton’s work. André Beaurepaire’s set designs remain bewitching. Barry Wordsworth’s conducting, however, sometimes lacked bite: an essential ingredient to the music of that most polemical of neo-classicists.

Voluntaries is Glen Tetley’s ballet to Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. Heard merely as a performance of the concerto, one might have been a little nonplussed, not on account of Thomas Trotter’s playing, as precise and well-characterised as one might expect, but rather because an electronic organ – at least I assume it must have been, on account both of the house and the sound – cannot really pass muster here. The split personality of Poulenc’s music, in this case torn between an idea, however dubious, of Gothic cathedral splendour and the music hall, needs a grander canvas. That said, Tetley’s choreography presents a fascinating blend – there is nothing of the split personality here – of classical tradition and modern dance, upon which Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, and their colleagues thrived, imparting grace, personality, and just the right degree of physicality. There were instances when the corps de ballet was not always quite together, and also occasional disjunctures with the pit, but they tended to be occasions one merely noted rather than recoiled from.

The Rite of Spring certainly does have a narrative of its own, as well as having proved an inspiration in terms of allegedly ‘absolute’ music to almost every composer who has followed. It drew, I thought, the best performance from Wordsworth, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on fine form, its brass in particular. Whilst his conducting might have lacked something of the incisiveness of master conductors of this music in the concert hall, the experience as a whole proved considerably more engrossing than yet another rendition of the Rite-as-orchestral-showpiece such as one more often than not must nowadays endure. There was an impressive sense of line, which complemented Kenneth Macmillan’s light-footed yet primitivistically inexorable choreography. Dance rhythms likewise complement those of the score: not as much of a platitude as one might expect. Divergences, such as the employment of three elders rather than one sage, do no harm. Here we saw, in line with Macmillan’s own experiment from a 1987 revival, a male solo dancer, Steven McRae proving a fine first amongst equals. Both in itself, then, and in the context of the rest of the programme, this proved a refreshing Rite.

Mark Berry