State of the Company
In a season—the first under new general director Gerard Mortier—wherein tradition is largely sidelined in favour of the imponderable delights of creation and contemporary escapades off the beaten track, a run of Rudolf Nureyev’s "The Sleeping Beauty" stands as a lighthouse of solace and hope. It is after all odd to realize that the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world’s finest classical companies, is serving the “ballet of ballets” as Nureyev called "The Sleeping Beauty", almost as a seasonal intermezzo while pieces by Trisha Brown, Angelin Preljocaj, Laura Scozzi, Susanne Linke, Pina Bausch and the like constitute the main dish all year.
Dancing "The Sleeping Beauty" remains a considerable challenge to any company, and Nureyev in the fifth of his six attempts to mount the ballet, didn’t give the Paris Opera dancers any presents when he staged it for them in 1989. Appropriately large-scaled and luxurious, and requiring vast means, but also with an anthology of difficult steps added, Nureyev’s "Beauty" is more than anything a company ballet—its “health report” as directrice de la danse Brigitte Lefèvre once referred to it—requiring the total commitment of all levels. With twenty-two performances spread over six weeks, a contemporary triple bill opening at the Palais Garnier in the middle of the run, and several dancers on the sick list after the first week, much depended of the cast and the moment as to how healthy the Paris Opera Ballet looked.
This production of "Beauty," especially since it was restaged for the massive Opéra Bastille four years after Nureyev’s death, provides quite a magnificent framework for the ballet. The lavish and colourful costumes from Franca Squarciapino and the opulent Italian-style baroque designs from Ezio Frigerio, superbly blending three-dimensional structures with trompe l’oeil, are not only a continuing feast for the eye, but also form a clear time-frame for the action, opening with the Sun King’s court and moving to Louis XV’s 18th century for the last acts. Although grand and elaborate the scenery isn’t obtrusive and there is at all times enough space on the stage for the choreography.
Less agreeable is Nureyev’s tendency to tinker with about everything. I don’t mind so much his considerable development of the Prince’s role, balancing Aurora’s, even going as far as to give him his own rose adagio-moment in the form of a long solo in the 2nd Act on top of two extra variations. More regrettable is, though, that Nureyev denies the Lilac Fairy the pivotal role she originally had. Reduced to a non-dancing part, her appearances often lack gravity to the point of becoming perfunctory and do not reflect the importance given to her in Tchaikovsky’s score. In the 2nd Act the Lilac Fairy does appear before the Prince, but her music has been excised completely in favour of his extended solo. Non-initiated viewers might be inclined to give more significance to the grotesque character of Catalabutte who is around quite a lot in this version, and with some dancers often in an irritating way.
Overall the element of the fantastic is played down considerably and the current French approach is one that seems to favour verismo instead of stylization, historical drama more than fairytale. Even Aurora’s vision remains essentially a human experience, with human feelings like falling in love or satisfaction with the outcome. Carabosse and Lilac really appear like sisters showing up at the christening in a differently coloured dress, somewhat too much from this side of the world to prevent Aurora and Désiré from taking their destiny into their own hands. The Prince finds the way into the sleeping castle mostly on his own in this reading, while both fairies vanish at the end of the 2nd Act as surreptitiously as they first appeared.
Myriam Ould-Braham and Christophe Duquenne, both eye-catching sujets, got a big break when they were cast in the leading roles at a matinee. Ould-Braham, extremely young, petite and light, showed great promise and has the aplomb of a natural classical dancer. Musical, radiant, and skilled enough to survive most of the technical difficulties with ease, it is mainly her portrayal that needs to develop. After a strong first Act, her Vision scene remained somewhat undefined without a clear conception of the character at this point in the story. She started to smile shyly as soon as the Prince looked her in the eyes. In the final Act Ould-Braham’s Aurora still lacked grandeur and maturity, but all in all it was a splendid debut. The more experienced Duquenne was not only a fine partner for Ould-Braham, he also danced well throughout, although his final variation could have been performed with more oomph.
With two sujets as the leading couple the remainder of the cast was either equal or below that rank, and here the results were at times disconcerting. Suffice it to say that a more balanced view of the company was to be gained from other performances.
At first sight, Agnès Letestu might appear a less natural choice for the role of Aurora, yet as soon as she made her entry one had forgotten about her tall stature and mature, womanly persona. Less spontaneous than Ould-Braham, but also correct in style, her character was sculpted with great intelligence and care. Above all, she danced splendidly, refusing—as becomes an étoile—to go the easy way, with an intense rose adagio (balances with the obligatory arms “en couronne” included) followed by a textbook variation, full of chic, clean and eloquent at the same time. Maybe less convincing in the 2nd Act because of the French tendency to emotionalize the vision scene and rather stiff port-de-bras, but still, she danced wonderfully, Letestu really came into her own in the final Grand Pas, majestic and calm, ideally matched by dream-prince Jean-Guillaume Bart.
Jean-Guillaume Bart is currently one of the company’s finest classical dancers. With his handsome danseur noble physique and carriage, his solid but unobtrusive technique allowing him to explore Nureyev’s most strenuous choreographic schemes with comfort and grace, the role of Prince Désiré is tailor-made for M. Bart.
Svetlana Zakharova, guesting for the fourth time with the Paris Opera Ballet, presented yet another totally different plastique and approach. Although Aurora is not one of her signature roles, still, the 25-year old ballerina has danced the ballet in at least four different productions since her debut in the Kirov’s Konstantin Sergeyev version in 1998. Her ability to absorb seems now unlimited. With awesome ease she seamlessly blends the Nureyev choreography with the version she dances in Russia in a convincing whole. Perhaps her transfer to the Bolshoi is bearing its fruits but her technique has become more centred, while her dancing in general is now definitely more remarkable for its effortlessness, polish and control, than for its wow-effects or unnecessary flourishes.
Her reading also gains from its Russian sources by a stylized approach and a clear, straightforward development of the character. The 1st Act had a girlish freshness which didn’t prepare for the authoritative dancing that was on display. Zakharova’s vision scene was, I think, the most consistent and winning by its irresistible combination of distant beauty with a touch of sadness. A beautifully danced Grand Pas, highlighting again her refined carriage and port de bras, rounded off an excellent performance and yet another Parisian success for Ms. Zakharova.
Ms. Zakharova was well paired with José Martinez, who danced strongly and gave his Prince a melancholic touch, admirably rendered in the long meditative solo.
As said, the quality of the supporting casts was variable and also the corps de ballet could look well on top of it at an evening performance while the preceding matinee had resembled an open rehearsal. In the three performances I attended the fairies in the prologue could do with some more rehearsing. The variations (already not of Nureyev’s most inspired interventions) were mainly danced by corps members—Nathalie Riqué was the only première danseuse I saw—which denied them the weight they need. Fanny Fiat in the fifth variation (Violente) and Emilie Cozette in the sixth, traditionally danced by the Lilac Fairy, stood out, but as an ensemble the group lacked focus.
Delphine Moussin was a lovely sensitive Florine, smoothly partnered by Karl Paquette whose Blue Bird unfortunately never really took flight on his own. The pas de cinq of the Precious Stones in Act 3 made sense thanks to the always remarkable Fanny Fiat as the Diamond Fairy. Her partner, Stéphane Bullion, however, seemed slightly overwhelmed by the tricky variation that Nureyev created on the music of the Sapphire Fairy, while the other three fairies had a rough time keeping together, ending the movement on two occasions in a painfully hilarious fashion. Here, too, a lack of rehearsal time was obvious.
The Orchestra of the Paris Opera sounded disappointingly flat and routine under conductor Paul Connelly. That Tchaikovsky’s score is still basically considered as mere accompaniment for the stage action is very regrettable in this context.
3, No. 1