In "The Blue Angel," ballerina Natalia Makarova finally attains the specially created full-length role she's been seeking for more than a decade, almost since the time of her defection from the Soviet Union in 1970.
And the Metropolitan Opera has a steamy, melodramatic production that will run for 12 performances, through Aug. 3.
In its American premiere Wednesday night, however, "The Blue Angel" looked suspiciously like a white elephant, on artistic grounds at least. Though both the production and the performances have quite a few redeeming aspects, they don't go far toward relieving 2 1/2 hours of much tedium and bombast.
In a sense, Washington lucked out on this one. "The Blue Angel" was originally supposed to play the Kennedy Center Opera House as well as the Met. Makarova, however, was loath to return to the stage where she was injured by falling scenery during the revival of "On Your Toes" a few seasons ago. In a sense, too, Washington has already seen her performance -- in several ways, her part in "The Blue Angel" is a pretentious remodeling of the vamp she portrayed to far better effect in the fluffy, musical-comedy ambiance of "Toes."
Big, lurid and floridly theatrical, if also dawdling and ponderous, the ballet casts Makarova as the seductive cabaret entertainer Rosa Fro hlich. This is the role that made Marlene Dietrich famous in the 1930 film "The Blue Angel," directed by Josef von Sternberg. Dancing opposite Makarova is 61-year-old Roland Petit as Prof. Rath (his students call him Unrat, meaning "Garbage"), who is fatally obsessed with Rosa's charms. It is also Petit who choreographed the work, on commission from the Berlin Ballet, which gave the world premiere last month in Germany and is now visiting the Met.
Petit is said to have based his ballet on the 1905 Heinrich Mann novel, "Professor Unrat," also the springboard for the film. But the ballet actually draws upon both book (the student Lohmann as Unrat's hated rival, for example) and movie (Unrat becoming a clown, his attempted strangulation of Rosa, his insanity and death). In the book, Unrat is a rigid martinet looking to avenge himself upon a morally lax society, personified by his surly students -- Rosa is merely the instrument of his vengeance. In the film, the social setting serves only as atmosphere -- Unrat is a timid bourgeois academic corrupted and ruined by his passion for a slut. Petit tried to combine the two viewpoints, depicting Unrat as torn between lust and vengeance, but the end result is an obscuring of dramatic motivation.
The irony of Makarova's situation is that Unrat, not Rosa, is the most interesting character in the ballet. In the movie, Dietrich the temptress nearly overshadows the veteran German actor Emil Jannings as Unrat. This is reversed in the ballet. Petit virtually steals the show from Makarova with a virtuoso portrayal, a stunning testimonial to the man's still prepossessing talents as a dancer, mime, actor and showman. The ballet is at its most exciting in the scenes where Petit sadistically berates his pupils, falls prey to Rosa's allure at the Blue Angel cabaret, is reduced to a humiliating circus figure, and finally goes twitchingly mad and dies.
By contrast, Makarova's femme fatale looks predictably formulaic. She's given lots of lascivious stretches to show off her legs -- in one scene, she reclines on a chair, a la Dietrich, and dangles a top hat from her toe. She also does some sultry dancing with Unrat, the student Lohmann and other admirers. At 44, Makarova still has the superb figure for all this, and the superficial wiles to go with it. But most of her scenes call for high heels rather than toe shoes, and the role is more one of stereotyped posturing than expressive dancing.
The major flaw of the ballet is that it's totally uninvolving. The characters remain purely externalized caricatures, more ludicrous than pitiable. Makarova's glamor looks synthetic, and though Petit's Unrat is a tour de force, one hardly gives a rap about his plight. Matters aren't helped by "filler" scenes drawn out to wearying length.
On the other hand, one can't but admire Petit's wizardry and resourcefulness as a theatrical and choreographic prestidigitator. Scenes like the wedding of Unrat and Rosa, with macabre echoes of the Last Supper, and the decadent tango party in Unrat's salon, are brilliantly envisaged and engineered.
As Lohmann, guest artist Jean-Pierre Aviotte from Petit's own Ballet National de Marseilles proves outstanding -- a young dancer with an obviously bright future. The other subsidiary roles are scarcely worth mentioning, except for husky-throated Barbara Scherler as a mannish cabaret singer, Tim Almaas and Tomas Karlborg as Lohmann's fellow students, and the Berlin Ballet ensemble, which Petit puts gloriously to work as students, Blue Angel performers and townspeople.
Aside from Petit's performance, the single most impressive element in the production is Josef Svoboda's brooding scenery, which resonantly evokes the nightmarish Expressionist look of von Sternberg's movie, and under a grim cutout skyline of gables and chimneys, creates a classroom, ominous alleyways, the Blue Angel cafe', Rosa's dressing room and Unrat's salon. Franca Squarciapino's costumes are well-attuned to the pre-World War I German setting, and in Makarova's chemises, become efficiently titillating.
The craftsmanlike, wildly eclectic musical score by Marius Constant (who conducts from the pit) is, however, like the choreography, more ingeniously skillful than emotionally gratifying. In sum, "The Blue Angel" shows us Petit's command of the theater and Makarova's legs, but not awfully much else.