United Kingdom Ferdinand Hérold (arr. John Lanchbery), La Fille mal gardée: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Relayed from Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to Empire Cinema, Basildon, 5.5.2015. (JPr)
Lise: Natalia Osipova
Colas: Steven McRae
Widow Simone: Philip Mosley
Alain: Paul Kay
Thomas: Christopher Saunders
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Scenario: Jean Dauberval
Designs: Osbert Lancaster
Lighting design: John B. Read
Directed for the cinema by Ross MacGibbon
In each generation I enjoy watching one ballerina above most of the rest. Previously it was Lesley Collier and Miyako Yoshida … and at the moment I am fascinated with Royal Ballet’s former Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova. Her Kitri could not be improved upon – though strangely she had an off night when I saw on screen her Odile/Odette (Swan Lake). How would she get on in her debut as Lise in Frederick Ashton’s 1960 bucolic rom-com La Fille mal gardée? In one word she was captivating.
Can I remind readers that this most heart-warming of ballets that is so redolent of the English countryside of centuries long past – and first staged at Covent Garden over 55 years ago by the doyen of British choreographers – is actually French in origin, as implied by its title that translates as The Wayward Daughter. Set to a series of popular French songs, La Fille mal gardée was created in 1789 at the Opéra of Bordeaux with choreography and libretto by Jean Dauberval. The everyday story of country folk replaced the more conventional prince, princesses and sylphs. Having been performed with great success around Europe it reached the Paris Opéra in 1828 and was re-staged with a new musical arrangement by Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold. It was produced here and there in the intervening period but only came to the fore at Covent Garden when Ashton create this ballet masterpiece with his typically ‘English’ signature against the timeless pastoral designs of Osbert Lancaster.
Ashton’s version tells the simple story of the plucky Lise, whose mother, Widow Simone, tries to marry her off to Alain, the only son of Thomas, a wealthy landowner. Alain is rather slow-witted, painfully shy and endearingly ‘odd’ but Lise actually loves the young and handsome, if penniless, Colas. As is to be expected everything is happily resolved when despite – or maybe because of – having been discovered together in Lise’s bedroom, they are allowed to marry and Ashton’s celebration of young love reaches its joyous conclusion. Ashton’s treatment was influenced by many things including Tamara Karsavina who had danced the role in Russia and the countryside around his Suffolk home. There is much to enjoy here for balletomanes of all ages and for the very youngest there is always the ‘Aah’ factor of a larger-than-life strutting cockerel with his four hens (apparently influenced by Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen) and a small white pony pulling a cart. What was Darcey Bussell’s problem with Peregrine the pony? The backstage presenter of these Royal Ballet cinema evenings is usually so relaxed but she must have fell off a horse when she was younger because she seemed so nervous and did not appear to like standing close to Peregrine … as I would not want to be next to a bird-eating spider!
Ashton’s choreography is deceptively difficult, mixing rapid footwork and quick spins with Bournonville softness and natural grace; truthfully all the prancing around does become a little repetitive and there is too much mimed spanking for modern sensibilities. There are also some Bolshoi-style grand gestures such as Colas lifting Lise high above his head at the end of their Act II pas de deux on the palm of his hand. The Royal Ballet’s corps de ballet deserve the highest praise dancing very enthusiastically and very assuredly. The occasionally problematic ribbon-dances of Act I were most beautifully done, including Lise and Colas’s ‘horse and cart’ and their cat’s cradle, as was the wheel of ribbons during the Act II harvest festivities which reminded me of the scoubidous I used to knot as a child.
I am approaching the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first time I saw this ballet at Covent Garden and it has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. I returned to it with my usual inner glow of visiting an old friend whom I had not seen for some time. With these cinema broadcasts the informative backstage films and their rehearsal footage reminds you how ballet is always recreating the past and rarely renewing or refreshing it. It was delightful to be in the company of former principal dancer, Lesley Collier, as she reminisced over tea with Darcey Bussell, and there was much about what Frederick Ashton taught her that she now passes on to those she is coaching in their roles. Very perspicacious I thought was her comments about how ‘If you could really look into Fred’s eyes you could really see the ballerina coming out of him. If you just absorb that enough you could steal a bit of it and it would become yours.’
Intriguingly Ms Collier was asked if there had been anything Natalia Osipova had found difficulty whilst she was learning the role and her answer chimed with some comments the dancer has received about her style being too Russian for certain roles. About Osipova she said ‘She is perfect for the role. She has a wonderful technique. She has the most enormous jump (and the) perfect personality. She doesn’t have the bend or port de bras that is required for Fred.’ My reaction to her suggesting that was what she could help her with was that there was much more the Royal Ballet’s dancers could learn from Osipova than she is likely to learn from them. Most importantly it is the ability to seemingly integrate her acting with her dancing: Osipova is an absolutely natural performer, she always stays in character and you never see in her eyes a thought process such as ‘what step comes next?’ which you see in the faces of many around her.
Her Colas was Steven McRae who is a refined dancer but still capable of great athleticism, exciting pyrotechniques and passionate bravura. For me he is a little too short and in former years would more likely to have been Alain rather than the heroine’s love interest. Nevertheless he was a cheerful suitor to Osipova’s Lisa and his perpetual grin was perfect for Colas. Osipova was suitably flirtatious with him during all the ‘butter churning’ in Act I and so very charming and tender in Act II when, believing herself to be alone in the house, she starts envisioning her future life with Colas and how they will get married, have one, two and then three children and mimes her life with them. She is caught out by Colas who has been hiding amongst some bales of corn; he affectionately calms her and soothes away her embarrassment. This was the moment the Osipova/McRae pairing truly gelled and there seemed a genuine chemistry between these two fine artists. This and their finely danced final pas de deux were the best moments for this partnership.
I would also like to praise Paul Kay who danced Alain, Lise’s would-be spouse; he made me feel very sympathetic about his quest for a bride and I never saw him as just a figure of fun. For me Wayne Sleep’s was the definitive performance in this role but Kay gets as close to it as anyone currently can. I shared in his character’s joy when he was reunited at the very end of the ballet with his beloved red umbrella and waddles off clutching it to his heart.
Michael Stojko was a fine Cockerel in charge of a bedraggled looking – but well danced – flock of hens. Much less successful was Philip Mosley as Lise’s mother. He turned the clog dance into more of a tap dance and overplayed the comedy as if it was an end-of-the-pier pantomime and he was Widow Twankey rather than Widow Simone. Someone should sit him down to watch dvds of Mrs Brown’s Boys and for me he evinced memories of Billy Dainty or Roy Hudd as the panto dame but without any of their inherent charm. Ross MacGibbon’s otherwise faultless direction for the screen gave this Widow Simone too many unnecessary close-ups in Act II which distracted us from what Natalia Osipova’s Lise was more importantly doing during the Spinning and Tambourine moments.
The projection and sound at the Empire Basildon was as good as ever. In conclusion I must praise Barry Wordsworth and the Royal Opera House Orchestra for a sunny and lively account of Hérold’s score (as arranged by John Lanchbery) which perfectly complemented some exceptional dancing.