Orff and Rossini in Birmingham Royal Ballet Double Bill

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Rossini’s Allegri diversi: Ballet Double Bill to choreography of David Bintley performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet, featuring Principal Dancers – Victoria Marr, Ambra Vallo, Nao Sakuma, Jamie Bond, Iain Mackay and Alexander Campbell, together with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Paul Murphy (Conductor) plus singers and soloists from Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore (Artistic Director) Birmingham Hippodrome, 22. 6. 2011. (GR)

There are double bills that roll off the tongue – think of ‘Cav and Pag’ the classic opera pairing. Whilst the two ballets performed under the title Passion and Ecstasy that made up the second half of BRB’s 2011 Summer Season are unlikely to achieve such legendary status, they were nevertheless perfect bedfellows. On the one hand, Allegri diversi was danced with the girls en pointe and the boys in tights to an arrangement of Gioacchino Rossini’s music and displayed the grace and ecstasy of traditional ballet. By contrast, all the passion of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was portrayed in the raw form of a modern-day morality play.

Momoko Hirata plus support in Allegri Diversi. Photo © Andrew Ross

Rossini is not noted for his ballet music, but naturally when writing operas for the French market it was obligatory to include a dance element. He was therefore a good choice for BRB Artistic Director David Bintley to select the music to go with his Allegri diversi. The piece features a solo clarinet, here played by Ian Scott. His contribution to the first half was outstanding, dominating the dance accompaniment for most of the 22 min with warmth, sensitivity and sparkle; he complimented the ecstasy of the dancers. The lead ballerina Nao Sakuma once again delighted the Hippodrome regulars with her statuesque poses (see photo). Her able partner was Joseph Caley. Of the various routines from the six support dancers, I picked out the duet that paired Samara Down and Victoria Marr as a highlight. After a brief coda, the orchestra under Paul Murphy produced a typical Rossini wind-up and climactic finish to prove that ballet does not have to have a plot. What it does need of course is a good choreographer and in Bintley, BRB has one of the best at its helm.

Victoria Marr and Iain Mackay in Carmina burana. Photo © Bill Cooper

Bintley also choreographed the Carmina burana following its five basic sections. It was his very first production on succeeding Sir Peter Wright in 1995, and it has been a popular addition to BRB’s repertoire ever since. This outing was no exception. As Fortuna, Empress of the World, Victoria Marr deployed considerable guile and allure with her jerky, angular movements in time to the rhythms and staccato music of Orff; she was both his whirling wheel of Fate and the fertile Queen Hecuba referred to in the text. In her little black number, the Seminarians never stood a chance, the crucifixes on designer Philip Prowse’s backdrop pushed to the back of these divinity student’s minds. Relegated to the pit, the chorus of Ex Cathedra had provided a rousing start, but this was not the best of adverts for the locally based ensemble, rather old and lacking in spice. Usually so full of vitality and sonority, their delivery was unrecognisable to the one that has so often been witnessed at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. But what were the alternatives?

The set for the second scene Spring comprised a variety of white laundry hanging out to dry. This not only indicated domesticity but also allowed the dancers entry and exit onto the central dancing area. The first two girls, in white smocks and little black wigs appeared, heavily pregnant, blooming and as radiant as Orff’s Phoebus. A third arrived, babe in papoose attached to her chest who upon turning revealed a second on her back. Chuckles all round! Bintley’s take on the ‘merry face of spring’ as chanted by the chorus was in human form, and how charming it was too, realising the translated mediaeval lines of Johann Schmell

They glory and rejoice in honeyed sweetness, who strive to make use of Cupid’s prize; at Venus’s command let us glory and rejoice in being Paris’s equals. Ah!

Ah, indeed. Arancha Baselga led the mums-to-be or otherwise, while Alexander Campbell provided the acrobatics of the Naïve Boy.

The exceptional Ambra Valla led the bobbing blond ponytails of the girls On the Village Green. With Jade Heusen, Angela Paul and Laura Purkiss in support the four captured a gaiety and youthfulness that had the boys in hot pursuit. I counted twenty-six in all when they staged their chair routine. Nothing new perhaps, but it emphasised the strength in depth at BRB. One of the outrageous extracts from these cantiones profanae from the Bavarian Alps is when the poet asks the Queen of England to bed down with him, but it passed almost unnoticed.

In the Tavern introduced us to the character Boiling Rage, the archtype angry young man from John Osborne, danced by Jamie Bond. He first accompaniment was Owen Webb’s baritone solo Burning inside with violent anger and bitterness. They fitted very well together, both eager for the pleasures of the flesh rather than salvation. Bintley and Prowse had devised a neat twist too for the entry of their Roast Swan. A large eggshell opened for Nao Sakuma to hatch as the swan, preening her feathers in front of the drooling Gluttons – corpulent seminarians, now well down the road to depravity. They rolled around like sumo wrestlers facing up to their opponent, each one hoping to get a tender slice of breast or a juicy leg. This time it was Jeremy Budd as the high-pitched tenor who agonised with the ‘turning of the spit’.

The decline of the Seminarians was complete soon after the garter-clad Tarts took to the stage, dressed to pull. Although the Nazi hierarchy adopted the wild rhythmic chants of Orff for their party rallies, they found some of the Latin lyrics too hot to handle, particularly in this Court of Love section. The delicate harmonies that begin Cupid flies everywhere generated some beautiful playing from the woodwind of the Sinfonia. And although Iain Mackay, stripping down to his Y-fronts must have had some of the ladies drooling, there was nothing too outrageous from Bintley and Prowse during the rave. Grace Davidson handled the high tessitura of A girl stood in a red tunic pretty well, while there was nothing static about Marr, now even more alluring in her matching outfit. Without the requirement to project a big sound this was the Sinfonia at their musical best. But again whilst the passion between Mackay and Marr built up to a climax on stage, the music failed to reach for the stars.

Mounting a production of Carmina burana for voice and orchestra is a daunting enough proposition. Add the ballet and it becomes that bit more scary. I just feel that on this occasion a certain passion in the music had been sacrificed for the sake of the choreography, as good as that element was.

Geoff Read