The Royal Ballet’s Memorable Sleeping Beauty at the Cinema

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty: Soloists and artists of the Royal Ballet, Students of The Royal Ballet School and the Royal Opera House Orchestra / Koen Kessels (conductor). Live cinema relay (introduced by Darcey Bussell and Ore Oduba) broadcast to Cineworld Basildon, Essex. 28.2.2017. (JPr)

Marianela Nuñez as Princess Aurora (c) Johan Persson (2011)

Cast included:
Princess Aurora – Marianela Nuñez
Prince Florimund – Vadim Muntagirov
Carabosse – Kristen McNally
Lilac Fairy – Claire Calvert
Princess Florine – Akane Takada
The Bluebird – Alexander Campbell

Choreography – Marius Petipa
Additional choreography – Anthony Dowell, Frederick Ashton and Christopher Wheeldon
Production – Monica Mason and Christopher Newton
Music – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
Original designs – Oliver Messel
Additional designs – Peter Farmer
Lighting design – Mark Jonathan
Staging – Christopher Carr

During one of the informative backstage films which illuminated this broadcast Francesca Franchi, Head of ROH Collections, talked about how the 2006 staging by Monica Mason, the former director of Royal Ballet, ‘is a recreation of the production that reopened the opera house after the end of the Second World War … The aim of this is to recreate that atmosphere of that production of 1946.’ Monica Mason herself added that it had been ‘closed as a theatre and became a dance hall [and was leased by Mecca Cafés Ltd and used by the troops on leave] … After the war the [Sadler’s Wells] company was invited to be resident here in the Royal Opera House and that is what came to the 1946 reopening and the first performance of The Sleeping Beauty.’ Ms Franchi added how this had been deemed very appropriate as the ballet involves ‘reawakening of the Princess after her 100-year sleep and it was the reawakening of the opera house.’ Ms Mason added that ‘After the gloom and the devastation of the war years, suddenly the curtains opened on something that was so grand and a fairy tale. The audience was just captivated by the magnificence of it.’ In 2017 so were, I suspect, nearly all those filling two cinemas in Basildon, Essex, and watching elsewhere throughout the world.

Oliver Messel’s production consequently has become the stuff of legend and I heard much about it from my own mother who was there on the second night. In total The Sleeping Beauty has had 895 performances at Covent Garden, though it has had something of a chequered history there over more recent years. I became most familiar with Anthony Dowell’s version in 1994 when he was director of the Royal Ballet, but fast-forward to 2006 and Monica Mason’s intention was to bring back that semi-mythical production as close as possible to Messel’s original intentions. (I must still admit, however, that no production for me has surpassed that by Rudolf Nureyev for London Festival Ballet in 1975 which I wish English National Ballet – as they now are – would revive.)

The basis – as it should be – of The Sleeping Beauty are Petipa’s near-sacrosanct steps that were given to the company by Nicholas Sergeyev, régisseur of Russia’s Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. These have accreted some additional choreography over the years including Frederick Ashton’s Act II variations for Aurora and the Prince, Anthony Dowell’s interpretation of Carabosse and her rats, as well as, a new – fairly irrelevant it must be added – Act I Garland Dance from Christopher Wheeldon.

There was obviously some painstaking effort taken by Peter Farmer (who, sadly, died recently) to recreate Oliver Messel’s original sets and costumes: the latter were generally in muted pastel shades for the Prince, Princess, fairies and most of those actually dancing, but were vividly coloured and elaborate for the various courtiers who did little than just stand around. As a cinema experience the sets were quaintly two-dimensional and redolent of a toy theatre with their overall chocolate-box – and very appealing – baroque prettiness. They continue to provide a handsome background to the dancing and do not overpower it.

Reviewing the Royal Ballet on an infrequent basis (and mainly in the cinema) does not allow me particularly to reflect on their current general health, yet the corps de ballet and students of The Royal Ballet School seemed totally engaged with what was going on and never appeared to ‘switch off’. This was very important considering Ross MacGibbon’s direction for the cinema which seemed an ideal mix of visually attractive scene-setting long shots and captivating close-ups. The latter gives no room to hide when it comes to the synchronicity of movement during the ensemble moments that on this occasion was impeccable.

I have written before about how I admire the clarity of the mime we see from the Royal Ballet, but I wished for more to be said about it by Darcey Bussell or in the background films for the benefit of ballet novices – like my wife who was accompanying me – who were otherwise wondering what all the hand gestures are all about. I am sure I am not the only one to have mentioned this and there was now a short film with Lilac Fairies past and present, Darcey Bussell, Monica Mason and Claire Calvert clarifying the importance of mime in this ballet.

The whole company were on top form and danced with great energy. In a ballet with so many soloist roles it is impossible to mention everybody, or many at all for that matter. Catching the eye was Alastair Marriott’s Cattalabutte, the prissy, over-officious master of ceremonies, whose failure to invite the fairy Carabosse to Princess Aurora’s christening ‘spells’ disaster for her parents. Elizabeth McGorian’s Queen is a regal, caring, and compassionate mother to Aurora, the heroine of the familiar fairy tale whose finger prick casts the court into that century-long sleep. Kristen McNally as Carabosse is another I have seen before in their role and still seems much too beautiful to be evil-incarnate, yet she suitably ‘chews the scenery’ whenever on stage and I could not take my eyes off her. On the first night in 1946 Robert Helpmann danced both Carabosse and Prince Florimund and I still prefer the role performed en travesti.

As the Lilac Fairy, whose consolation lifts Carabosse’s curse, Claire Calvert danced prettily and radiated beneficence. However, she lacked the ‘presence’ to make me truly believe she was the power of good that could overcome all the evil of the Wicked Fairy. Marcellino Sambé stood out once again, this time as Florestan in Act III and completely outshone one of the Royal Ballet’s newest principal dancers, Alexander Campbell, who was The Bluebird. Campbell looked in need of a rest or possibly he was missing his indisposed regular partner, Francesca Hayward, who was replaced as Princess Florine by Akane Takada. She danced as prettily in this final act showcase as she had as the Fairy of the Enchanted Garden in the Prologue.

It is no good the Royal Ballet boasting about how all The Sleeping Beauty performances are sold-out in the current run when the real question is will all those patrons actually see Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund danced each night to the same level as the cinema audiences – and those actually in the theatre – did? Only Natalia Osipova can match Marianela Nuñez’s feminine grace, and peerless – almost effortless – classical technique as Aurora. I don’t think they have anyone who can leap and bound with as much flair and brio as Vadim Muntagirov did in the little the Prince gets to do. Also, his melancholic Act II solo perfectly suggested the Prince’s loneliness and longing for true affection. Nuñez and Muntagirov oozed charisma and brought true drama to the proceedings because of the great chemistry in their partnership.

One of the delightful things about Marianela Nuñez is her smile that only intermittently faded during the Rose Adagio which the ballerina must conquer not long after her first entrance in Act I. Not only does the ballerina steady herself for a series of unsupported balances, involving each of the four suitors, but eventually must achieve eight poised and wobble-free balances whilst totally exposed centre-stage and, as here, with the camera aimed right at her. Although Koen Kessels – who conducted an energetic, exquisitely played account of Tchaikovsky’s opulent score – did rush the pas d’action this was totally forgivable given its technical demands. Marianela Nuñez was truly remarkable here and elsewhere; she was a mysterious, otherworldly presence during the pas de deux in the Vision scene and trusting the secure partnering of Muntagirov launched herself with élan into the famous Act III trio of fish dives. In truth, the grand pas de deux was an absolute masterclass from both of them and a fitting end to a memorable performance.

Jim Pritchard

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