Jann Parry sees The Royal Ballet's Don Quixote with Mayara Magri and Marcelino Sambé – “a cheery antidote to winter's arrival”
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||4 October 2023|
Don Quixote has never been the Royal Ballet's calling card. The general feeling was that Don Q was best left to visiting Russian companies. Ninette de Valois had choreographed her account of Cervante's story in 1950, to music by Roberto Gerhard, but it wasn't popular and didn't last for long. The Petipa/Minkus Don Quixote came much later into the company's repertoire, in versions by Mikhail Baryshnikov (originally for American Ballet Theatre) and Rudolf Nureyev (originally for Vienna State Opera Ballet). Neither production suited the company, in spite of stellar performances by leading dancers.
Then came Carlos Acosta, who had danced in countless productions and who wanted to mount his own version for the Royal Ballet in 2013. (He has since made an even better one for Birmingham Royal Ballet, the company he now directs.) He plays to the Royal Ballet's strengths, knowing how the ensemble is encouraged to act as realistically as possible in narrative ballets. He fills his Don Q stage with busy villagers, urchin gangs, children, matadors, gypsies and wedding guests, as well as the female corps of dryads in the Vision Scene. Since, unlike the Russians, there is no Royal Ballet tradition of character dance specialists for exotic numbers, he introduces classical Spanish guitar players to animate the Act II gypsy encampment.
To make the ballet's flimsy narrative clear, he opens with a prologue for deluded Don Quixote (Gary Avis on Wednesday night), who has a visitation from Dulcinea (Hannah Grenell, shrouded in a white veil) and some black-clad demons. Sancho Panza (Liam Boswell) equips him with a barber's bowl as a helmet and a bedpost as a lance. Off they set, with Don Q on a rickety puppet horse and Sancho Panza on foot, deprived of his donkey. Dulcinea and the demons will reappear in Act II, so we already know that the don sees things when his dementia takes a grip.
He's fine when he arrives in the nearby town, even though the buildings move around disconcertingly. Kitri, the innkeeper's daughter, is the liveliest of the villagers. Mayara Magri leapt so enthusiastically during her entry that she slipped and hurtled forward onto the stage to gasps from the audience. She recovered swiftly, undeterred and ready to reprove her beau, Basilio, for flirting with her girlfriends. Marcelino Sambé as the penniless barber is a charming show-off, wowing the locals and the audience, who are, of course, on Kitri's/Magri's side. He has to prove that he's worth her love, since she's the most desirable dancer in the town, as Don Q acknowledges. Fearlessly, Sambé and Magri accomplished the high-flying one-handed lifts in their Act I pas de deux, to yet more gasps, this time of admiration.
Enter the toreadors, twirling their capes, led by Joseph Sissons, making his debut as Espada. His moustachioed matador is not a poseur but a naturally macho guy, experienced in flourishing his pink cape at bulls or female fans. Mariko Sasaki, making her debut as Mercedes, his girlfriend, was aloof – more like Manon in the hotel particulier scene than a bullfighter's sultry paramour. Meanwhile, the urchins have a good time, mocking, thieving and tormenting Sancho Panza: Marco Masciari grabbed our attention, along with Harrison Lee, Francesco Serrano and Daichi Ikarashi. Boswell's merry Sancho Panza enjoyed their company, a relief from being in attendance on his bewildered master. The long first act, packed with virtuoso dancing, ends with Kitri and Basilio escaping to get married, pursued by her father, the Don and Sancho Panza.
In Act II, the runaway pair find themselves alone together for the first time. Magri's Kitri is no pushover for her lover's advances, though she shows a tenderness and sensuality that bodes well for their future together. Their wooing is interrupted by a band of gypsies who take them to an encampment in the woods, complete with firepit. Though Lukas B. Braendsrød makes an alluring ruffian with a tattoo on his manly torso, I was nevertheless distracted by watching Avis wandering off in a confused state. His Don Quixote needs to be taken care of, threatened by advancing windmills and black fiends. Avis makes him a real person, not a carboard pretext for his dream of lovely ladies in pastel-hued tutus.
The corps of nymphs (if that's what they are) were neat and bouncy, though they could have lifted their knees up even higher in their skipping steps. Isabella Gasparini stole the vision scene as a delectable Amour, with Yuhui Choe as a matronly Queen of the Dryads – lovely arms, no elevation. Magri was subdued as ‘Dulcinea.' What is Kitri meant to convey in this scene? She's supposed to be an imaginary ideal woman, no longer a firecracker village girl. Marianela Nunez interprets it as a grand ballerina role, a chance to be radiantly regal. Magri seemed remote, tense in her neck and shoulders, technically secure but without a personality.
Give her a fan in Act III and she has fun, confidently at ease in the famous pas de deux with the worst behind her. Sambé launched himself into multiple leaps and immaculately controlled pirouettes, slowing to a halt. Magri polished off proficient fouettés, and even Boswell's Sancho Panza had a go. Sasaki's cool Mercedes warmed up in response to Sissons's Espada, who sent up his preening while still winning hearts with his impressive dancing. By the end of the ballet, everyone was smiling, enjoying Minkus's pseudo-Spanish music, orchestrated by Martin Yates with castanets, tambourines and catchy rhythms to get the dancers going.
Acosta's lively Don Quixote will continue to serve as a cheery antidote to winter's arrival with many more casts to come before the live screening in cinemas on 7 November, with Magri scheduled as Kitri and Matthew Ball as Basilio.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.