At the lockdown barre: The Royal Ballet in an #OurHousetoYourHouse 2005 La Fille mal gardée

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ferdinand Hérold (arr. John Lanchbery), La Fille mal gardéeDancers of The Royal Ballet, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Anthony Twiner (conductor). 2.2.2005 performance reviewed as an Our House to Your House stream on 12.6.2020. (JPr)

Marianela Nuñez (Lise) and Carlos Acosta (Colas)

Choreography – Frederick Ashton
Scenario – Jean Dauberval
Designs – Osbert Lancaster
Lighting design – John B. Read
Staging – Alexander Grant
TV Director – Ross MacGibbon

Cast included:
Lise – Marianela Nuñez
Colas – Carlos Acosta
Widow Simone – William Tuckett
Alain – Jonathan Howells
Thomas – David Drew

Still available on BBC iPlayer for a limited time is Men at the Barre – Inside the Royal Ballet (click here) the behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Richard Macer. A rather flawed hour but not without interest because it celebrates the dedication, ambition, athleticism, and, most important, talent of young male dancers of The Royal Ballet described in the voiceover as a ‘golden generation’. Macer began by exploring some outdated comments about ballet on American TV and then added his own clichés, before the first look at some of those we would follow in the programme was when they were discussing what a dance belt does! While we did see and hear from some personable younger principal dancers, such as, Matthew Ball, Vadim Muntagirov, Marcelino Sambé, it should have been admitted that many others in the highest rank of The Royal Ballet – and particularly the guest artists – are in their mid-30s and some significantly older. One of them, Edward Watson was facing retirement, another Steven McRae is battling injury, and the veteran principal, Federico Bonelli, was nowhere to be seen.

At one point there is some banter concerning leading ballerina Francesca Hayward that should have been edited out and we also hear from one of the first soloists bemoaning the lack of promotion opportunities at The Royal Ballet and pondering moving on. When we watch a caricature of a ballet master giving out his ‘orders’ like an old school regimental sergeant major it is hard to believe it is 2020. When interviewed he suggested that Rudolf Nureyev – who in the 1960s forever changed the image of male ballet dancers – would not have been such a big star now. Possibly true, but only if you value technique more than star quality and charisma. Saddest of all was how we were introduced to several students in their last year at The Royal Ballet School: it was good to know that three of them were eventually taken into the company, but there was no mention of what happens to the majority whose potential careers may stall after the gruelling years of intensive training.

Whether there is a ‘golden generation’ was not proven but it does deepen the sadness at what the entire Royal Opera House extended ‘family’ is enduring in our Covid-19 blighted days.

Lockdown has provided myriad opportunities to look back at several performances – with particular artists and in notable productions – I did not have the opportunity to see over recent decades. I first saw Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée at Covent Garden in 1980 and – although it is the fortieth anniversary of that memorable evening – it is taking something special for me to review it again now in 2020. With each generation of dancers I have enjoyed watching one ballerina above most of the rest, attempting – possibly failing – to set aside my critical faculties. From previous generations it was The Royal Ballet’s Lesley Collier and Miyako Yoshida. Currently those I am most eager to see are Natalia Osipova and Marianela Nuñez. I knew three of these wonderful ballerinas have been outstanding Lises in La Fille but there was now an opportunity – thanks to the Royal Opera House’s streamed opera and ballet (click here) – to see Marianela Nuñez’s role debut in 2005 when she was partnered by Carlos Acosta, then at the height of his powers, as Colas.

For some background – where little is needed – I will depend on much of what I wrote in 2015 about La Fille mal gardée and repeat how it is the most heartwarming of ballets and so redolent of a long-lost idyllic English countryside. It was first staged at Covent Garden 60 years ago by the doyen of British choreographers, though the ballet is actually French in origin and its title translates as The Wayward Daughter. Set to a series of popular French songs, La Fille mal gardée was created in 1789 in Bordeaux – with choreography and libretto by Jean Dauberval – and an 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. There was new music from Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold and – though it was revived here and there in the intervening period – it only gained its current status in the ballet repertoire when Ashton created his rustic masterpiece with his typically ‘English’ signature against the timeless storybook designs of Osbert Lancaster.

It is a simple story of the plucky Lise, whose mother Widow Simone tries to marry her off to Alain, the only son of Thomas (David Drew), a wealthy landowner. Alain is rather slow-witted, painfully shy, and endearingly ‘odd’ but Lise actually loves the young and handsome, though 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 can marry, and Ashton’s celebration of young love reaches its joyous conclusion. Many things influenced Ashton’s scenario including Tamara Karsavina who had danced the role in Russia and the countryside around his Suffolk home. La Fille mal gardée has much for balletgoers of all ages and, particularly for the very youngest, there is always the ‘Aah’ factor of a larger-than-life strutting cockerel with his four hens (apparently a nod to Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen), as well as, a small white pony pulling a cart.

Ashton’s choreography is much more difficult than it looks, mixing rapid footwork and quick spins with Bournonville softness and natural grace; truthfully all the prancing around can look a little repetitive and there is much 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 for always dancing it all assuredly and with exemplary enthusiasm. The ribbon-dances of Act I – which can occasionally cause problems – were achieved with practiced ease on this occasion, including Lise and Colas’s ‘horse and cart’ and their cat’s cradle. So too was the wheel of ribbons during the Act II harvest festivities which never fails to remind me of the scoubidous I used to knot as a child.

Marianela Nuñez is still a remarkable ballerina but in 2005 her Lise benefits from the freshness of someone in their early twenties. Nuñez was then – as she is now – a totally natural, very instinctive dancer, with a sublime musical sense, and rarely steps out of character or overly-concentrates on her next steps. I am loath to criticise her – and anyway her interpretation will have deepened in subsequent years – but there was something a little too waiflike to Nuñez’s Lise. This farm girl might be rather more worldly-wise than we were shown, as she is someone happy to conceal Colas in her bedroom without a second thought!

Carlos Acosta brought his soaring virtuosity to Colas and there was all the exhilarating pyrotechnics and bravura you would expect from his solos. However, although Colas’s pursuit of Lise was eager enough it lacked some wit and passion. As Colas – on this occasion – Acosta seemed merely playing himself, regardless of how evident his ‘star quality’ and ‘charisma’ was in 2005.

Nuñez’s Lise was mildly flirtatious with Acosta’s Colas during all the Act I ‘butter churning’ and especially charming in Act III when – believing herself to be alone in the house – Lise starts imagining her future married life with Colas and the three children she wants. From his hiding place in some bales of corn Colas surprises a deeply embarrassed Lise and affectionately placates her. This was the moment the Nuñez/Acosta partnership truly gelled and there seemed some genuine chemistry between these two excellent dancers. This and their concluding pas de deux were this pairing’s best moments.

Jonathan Howells’s Alain, Lise’s would-be spouse, never sought cheap laughs and his was a particularly nuanced portrayal, eliciting the audience’s sympathy over his vain quest for a bride. For me Wayne Sleep gave the benchmark performances as Alain, but I shared the evident joy Howells’s Alain showed during the ballet’s epilogue when reunited with his beloved red umbrella and exiting clutching it to his heart.

Giacomo Ciriaci was a fine Cockerel in charge of a bedraggled looking – though well synchronised – brood of hens. Will Tuckett’s Widow Simone was an undoubted harridan whose heart only truly melts near the end of the ballet. This role can be under- or over-played and I longed for a touch more Widow Twankey from Tuckett despite his well-executed clog dance.

Anthony Twiner scrupulously accompanied the exceptional dancing and led the Royal Opera House Orchestra through a pastoral and jaunty account of Hérold’s score (as arranged by John Lanchbery) which proves a hotchpotch full of endless musical sunshine.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Royal Opera House in lockdown click here.

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