The New York City Ballet's newest opus -- Jerome Robbins' "The Four Seasons" to music by Giuseppe Verdi -- was a big hit with its Washington audience in its first local viewing at the Kennedy Center last night. And why not?
It's got a jaunty, lightweight musical score, some harmless allegorical trappings that allow for splashy decor and choreographic punning and, not least, the electric presence of Mikhail Baryshnikov, partnering an effervescent Patricia McBride and being shown off himself in an unabashed bravura fashion that appears to bend the NYCB "rule" on the subject of star showcasing, momentarily at least.
Though it is not a greatly substantial work in any case, in some ways the new ballet is better -- more solid, more artful, that is -- than it may at first look. The conception goes back about six years, when Robbins heard a complete recording of Verdi's opera, "I Vespri Siciliani," and became enchanted with its ballet music.
For various reasons, it took some time to follow through on the inspiration and some things changed enroute. Baryshnikov was enlisted for the original casting, for instance, as a replacement for ailing Peter Martins, who now alternates in the Winter section along with Suzanne Farrell (they are scheduled to dance the weekend performances of the ballet). Robbins retained the framework of Verdi's libretto, and, adjoining as well some ballet pieces from two other Verdi operas, expressed the hope that the work would "evoke the sweetness of the old opera-ballets."
This it does, but somehow the period pretext and Santo Loquasto's tacky decor and costumes tend to obscure the ballet's underlying achievement -- a demonstration of what a master choreographer can do with a suite of conventional 19th-century dance "numbers," given a modern sensibility and a company as stunningly proficient as the NYC Ballet.
"The Four Seasons" also is a display window for the personal attributes and skills of individual dancers, most conspicuously, the crisp femininity of Heather Watts in the "Winter" section; the impressive strength, amplitude and nuance of Kyra Nichols and Daniel Duell in "Spring"; the sultriness of Stephanie Saland, partnered by Bart Cook in the oriental-flavored "Summer"; and the gaudily virtuosic sides of McBride and Baryshnikov, as well as the Puckish Jean-Pierre Frohlich, in the concluding autumn bacchanal.
Also splendidly performed last night were Robbins' uproarious "The Concert," and Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," with Baryshnikov in the title role.