England's Royal Ballet settled into the Kennedy Center Opera House last night with a performance of its "signature" opus, "The Sleeping Beauty," commencing a two-week engagement with an accent on large, operatic-style productions.
The only way to adequately sum up the feelings stirred by the evening is to exclaim, how good it is to have the Royal in our midst again! The company celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; in certain respects it may have known better times than the present, but it remains one of the true glories of classical ballet in the modern world.
The virtues the company has made distinctively its own -- taste, elegance, stylistic good breeding, playing for unity of impact rather than star turns and a theatrical sensibility of the highest order -- were as much in evidence as ever. And if last night's opening performance was appreciably less than brilliant, it was a sort of triumph all the same -- a triumph of the company as an integral entity over the shortcomings of individuals.
There is a great deal to recommend the Royal's current version of "Beauty," first mounted in 1977 under the supervision of the company's founder, Dame Ninette de Valois Choreographically speaking, it is perhaps as close to the original 1890 work of Marius Petipa as any version extant today.There are some additions and substitutions accrued in the past, mostly from the inspired hand of Frederick Ashton, and some lesser cuts (of which only the Awakening pas de deux and its impassioned music need be deeply regretted.) By and large de Valois seems to have striven assiduously to rid the production of needless tinkerings or adulterations, and the consequence is that the purity and eloquence of Petipa's designs -- in their wondrous match with Tchaikovsky's score -- stand forth in bold relief.
Add in an especially handsome and satisfying phsyical production, which enhances the fairy-tale enchantment and the underlying moral content without distraction or visual discordancies. David Walker's conventionalized period sets and costumes are beautifully harmonized in color, pattern and texture, and with the help of subtly modulated lighting, they reveal rather than "package" the sweet drama of "Beauty." The Panorama scene is the smoothest and most convincing illusion of water voyage one can recall seeing. Omitting intermission between the Prince's awakening kiss and the ensuing wedding of the lovers overcomes another longstanding pitfall in staging this ballet.
As for the dancing and acting, all of it that involved the company as a whole or in groups was impeccably styled and splendidly executed -- from big set numbers like the Act I Garland Waltz to dramatic vignettes like the Nymphs ensembles in the Vision scene, from the courtiers' flourishes to the mere backgrounding of tableaux. The individual role portrayals, on the other hand, were predominantly disappointing. Jennifer Penney's Aurora was academically precise and neatly proportioned, but artistically pallid. Wayne Eagling was wooden in acting and off his own best mark technically as the Prince. Pippa Wylde's Lilac Fairy had a nice, warm benevolence about it, but her dancing lacked sparkle. The showpieces among the last act divertissements -- the Florestan trio and the Bluebird pas de deux -- both fell flat. It was little help that conductor Ashley Lawrenced led what was for the most part a fast, dry, disengaged orchestral performance.
Excetions? Yes, there were a couple, and they were reminders of a kind of excellence that used to be more widespread in Royal casts. One was Karen Paisey, a corps de ballet dancer substituting for one of her colleagues, who lit up the Fairy of the Song Birds variation with her bright, musical effervescence and lissome phrasing. But the biggie was Monica Mason in the non-dancing part of Carabosse -- her large, biting, perfectly scaled and inflected depiction of the wicked fairy made her a sister of Mozart's Queen of the Night. It was the evening's one performance of genius, and it counted for a lot.