La Fille mal gardée fills Paris’s Palais Garnier with an unparalleled sense of happiness

FranceFrance  La Fille mal gardée: Paris Opera Ballet, Orchestra of the Paris National Opera / Philip Ellis (conductor). Palais Garnier, Paris. 15.3.2024. (JO’D)

[far right] Léonore Baulac (Lise) and Simon Valastro (Widow Simone) in La Fille mal gardée © Benoite Fanton

Choreography – Frederick Ashton after Jean Dauberval
Music – Louis-Joseph Ferdinand Hérold
Musical arrangements – John Lanchbery
Set and Costume design – Osbert Lancaster
Lighting – Jean-Pierre Gasquet, Pascal Neniez

Cast included:
Lise – Léonore Baulac
Colas – Guillaume Diop
Alain – Antoine Kirscher
Thomas – Jean-Baptiste Chavigner
Mother Simone – Simon Valastro
Cockerel – Hyuma Gokan
With the Étoiles, Premières danseuses, Premiers danseurs, the Corps de Ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet

‘The more trivial the subject,’ wrote the critic Edwin Denby, as quoted by David Vaughan in the programme note to The Royal Ballet’s production of La Fille mal gardée in 2017, ‘the deeper and more beautiful is Ashton’s poetic view of it.’ The ostensibly simple subject of this ballet, created by Frederick Ashton on dancers of The Royal Ballet in 1960, is the love between a young farmer, Colas, and a farmer’s daughter, Lise.

At the Palais Garnier (where it has been in the repertoire since 2007) as at Covent Garden, La Fille mal gardée is a ballet that fills the auditorium with an unparalleled sense of happiness: Osbert Lancaster’s colourful drop cloths, sets and costumes; John Lanchbery’s arrangement of Ferdinand Hérold’s music for the original version of the ballet in 1789, spritely and spiritedly played under the baton of conductor, Philip Ellis; Lise and Colas dancing off into the wings together at the end.

Yet in the figure of Alain, the son of a rich vineyard owner who Lise’s widowed mother had wanted her to marry, Ashton the ‘theatre animal’ is able to contrast comedy with seriousness and pathos.

As an impediment to the consummation of the bucolic lovers’ relationship, as someone whose clumsiness makes him unable to dance, Alain incurs the wrath of Nature itself. The storm that ends Act I only begins to rage after he has put up his red umbrella. It is on Alain that the Cockerel, whose presence along with four Hens from the opening scene gives the whole ballet the air of a fertility rite, subsequently vents its anger. The music as it does so has all the dramatic quality of that written for the death of Giselle in Giselle, or the moment in Swan Lake when Siegfried realises he has been tricked by Rothbart and Odile.

Léonore Baulac (Lise) in La Fille mal gardée © Benoite Fanton

Ashton’s combination of mime, and social and classical dance has the effect of making an audience feel they know and care about the characters represented on the stage. An effect that is heightened by his focus on epaulement. Once or twice, just a little, I wondered if there should be more of that in the performances of Léonore Baulac as Lise, likeable in her characterisation and lovely to look at on pointe, and Guillaume Diop as Colas, elegant, lithe, and with an underlying strength.

Simon Valastro is subtle en travestie as the clog-dancing Widow Simone, the mother who Lise will disobey, but who (because this is Ashton) she loves even so. Antoine Kirscher, in the demi-caractère role of Alain created on Alexander Grant, demonstrates that to be a character who dances badly a dancer needs to dance very well indeed. He does this, with Colas and Lise, in a travesty of the pas de trois involving two men and a woman that Frederick Ashton included in so many of his ballets.

Like the Blue Boy who danced alone in Ashton’s Les Patineurs twenty-three years earlier, Alain as performed by Antoine Kirscher could be the character the audience comes to care about most of all.

John O’Dwyer

Featured Image: Léonore Baulac (Lise) and Guillaume Diop (Colas) in La Fille mal gardée © Benoite Fanton

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