A ballet choreographed to a complete performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with live orchestra in the pit sounded from the outset like the sort of unusual Festival show that could go two ways – either be an unique, remarkable experience, or an endurance test. Unfortunately, this show is the latter.
The first point which ought to be made quite clear is that choreographer Martin Schläpfer has not choreographed the whole of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. There are too many places in this performance when Mahler's music is chuntering on in the pit and nothing is happening on stage (the bizarre opening to the final movement is a key instance). This might be more tolerable if the choreography were more convincing, but Schläpfer simply hasn't got a sufficient vocabulary to sustain a 90 minute dance piece. After the opening movement you have pretty much seen what he has to offer and it is not improved by repetition. Only at the very end does something really new appear – a weird solo with bedside table coupled to a game of musical chairs. The choreography attempts the creation neither of sustained characters or narrative, nor does it respond convincingly to single movements in themselves (there are exceptions within movements) or to the work as a whole – it is essentially highly episodic. To couple such an approach to Mahler I frankly found rather baffling, because Mahler's Symphony is not meant to be played episodically – though this performance tried unsuccessfully to make it sound in places as if it was. To my eyes there was overall a strong divergence between music and choreography.
When the choreography has such shortcomings it is difficult to judge the merits of the dancers in their own right, especially as I'm not a regular ballet-goer. That said, the corps often looked untidy and not quite in unison with each other when they appeared. Perhaps this was intentional, but if so I don't think it was effective. Nor did any individual dancer really succeed in standing out over the course of the evening.
Nor are things very much better in the pit. You clearly can't expect a really satisfying performance of a work like that when it is coupled to an alternative medium in this way, and it isn't fair to judge conductor Wen-Pin Chien or the RSNO's overall credentials with the composer from this performance. But the plain fact is that on this occasion the RSNO under Chien's direction largely failed to find a drama or tension to compensate for the absence of same on stage. Some sections seemed to proceed with a painful slowness.
Altogether this was a pretty disappointing, dull evening. I think I read somewhere (though I can't now find the piece) that Schläpfer has actually choreographed all nine of Mahler's symphonies. If this is so, on the basis of this performance we can only hope that he doesn't become Linehan's Bieto.