Guest author Jonathan Gray sees two Sleeping Beauty casts at The Royal Opera House, London
|Title||The Sleeping Beauty|
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||17 and 19 January 2023|
If it hadn't been for you know what, The Royal Ballet would, undoubtedly, have staged its signature work, Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, during the 2021–22 season. 2021, you see, was the centenary of the first complete performance of the ballet in London, presented at the Alhambra Theatre by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and given the title The Sleeping Princess. The production featured several British dancers, including Ninette de Valois, Anton Dolin, Lydia Sokolova and Errol Addison, and was seen at the time as a milestone event in the history of classical ballet in the UK.
Twenty-five years later, another milestone event occurred, following the end of the Second World War, when Sadler's Wells (now The Royal) Ballet staged The Sleeping Beauty in spectacular fashion for the reopening of the Royal Opera House, its new home, in 1946. With celebrated designs by Oliver Messel, who brought fairy tale-like colour and fantasy back to the London stage after six gruelling years of hardship, blackouts, and conflict, it proved a triumph not just for Margot Fonteyn, who danced Princess Aurora on the opening night, but for the entire company in this most difficult and taxing of ballets. It was a remarkable achievement for an ensemble barely 15 years old. Three years later, in 1949, the company triumphed again on tour at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, and The Sleeping Beauty has been closely associated with The Royal Ballet ever since.
The Royal Ballet's current production, first performed in 2006, looks back to that famous 1946 staging. Messel's designs have been recreated – not entirely successfully, it has to be admitted – by the late Peter Farmer, and Monica Mason and Christopher Newton have returned to Petipa's choreographic text as staged by De Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev. What we see now at Covent Garden is a good facsimile of the dances British balletomanes have come to know and love over 75 years, but I think it is a shame that not more of the 1946 production has been retained. Why, for example, use a new Garland Waltz choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon when there is the much better one created in 1946 by Frederick Ashton that could be performed instead? Why make the Hunting scene so short, other than to save running time costs? Why, also, not recreate Messel's lovely barque drawn by a giant butterfly that takes the Lilac Fairy and Prince Florimund to the sleeping castle during the Panorama? Instead, its replacement is a heavy baroque tugboat.
Grumbles aside, the latest revival at Covent Garden is a good one, and it was heartening to see the dancers of The Royal Ballet rise to the occasion and perform with such enthusiasm and breadth of style. They were alert, focused, and musical, and if it were true that some of the dancing of the Fairies in the Prologue was a little bland and lacking in imagination (when did we not moan about one or two of them in the past?), I was surprised to see other dances, such as Puss in Boots and the White Cat, performed by Sophie Allnatt and David Yudes, given new lease of life, with the dancers bringing plenty of characterisation, humour and a relish of the choreography.
The opening night, on 16 January, was led, by all accounts, triumphantly by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov as Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. Instead, I opted for other performances in order to see the Auroras of Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Mayara Magri. On 17 January, it was clear from her first entrance that O'Sullivan's Aurora was going to be quick, light, and bright, with sparkling jumps and an easy command of the choreography. She has a lovely sense of épaulement, and fastidious musical timing, and yet I have to admit to being a tiny bit disappointed. As assured and delightful as she was, I felt O'Sullivan, an artist I greatly admire, could offer the audience more spontaneous excitement to her dancing, as well as a greater sense of daring, playful musicality. The ballerina was at her best in the “Vision” scene, where her dancing was beautifully soft and languorous.
O'Sullivan was paired with the Prince Florimund of Steven McRae. Serious injury kept him off stage for several years, even before the pandemic, although he remained a constant presence on Instagram for his thousands of followers. This was the first time I had seen him in a full-length role for quite a while, and it proved to be a performance of two halves – McRae turned the “Vision” scene into the Prince's romantic reverie, and I was impressed by the smooth, legato quality of his dancing in his solo and his courteous attentiveness to Aurora; the last act, however, seemed more of a hurdle for him, with sequences of traditional steps in the Prince's variation and coda during the ”Wedding” pas de deux altered in order to display his current technical capabilities.
Two days later, Mayara Magri made her debut as Princess Aurora, and it was an auspicious occasion. The ballerina brought to the stage all the qualities I look for in an Aurora: grandeur, style, technique, authority, humility, amplitude, musicality, and a joy in the dance – I could go on and on. True, there were a few nervous wobbles in the treacherous “Rose Adagio”, but Magri recovered quickly and gave her audience a ravishing, thrilling, glorious account of the role, dancing as if to the manner born. She already has everything in place, and I can't wait to see how Magri develops her performance in the role in the future.
Also making his debut, as Prince Florimund, was Cesar Corrales. A darkly dramatic and flamboyant dancer, it's not a natural role for him, but he made a very good impression, bringing to the Prince a dramatic presence, as well as handsome good looks. Corrales needs to work a little harder on his partnering skills, but, dancing with Magri, the couple made a highly attractive pairing.
There was fine dancing to be seen over the two nights, with good accounts of the Lilac Fairy from Annette Buvoli and Gina Storm-Jensen, and a wonderful account from Leticia Dias and Joonhyuk Jun of Princess Florine and the Blue Bird. Dias was all charm and delightful vivacity; Jun, tall and airborne, was exciting for his exemplary supple jumps with the softest of landings. A mention also for Elizabeth McGorian as a Carabosse quivering with rage and vengeful spite, and for Gary Avis as a funny, silly, supercilious Catalabutte who takes the brunt King Florestan's anger for everything that goes wrong.
Koen Kessels conducted Tchaikovsky's glorious music with alacrity.
The Sleeping Beauty is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House until 6 June.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.