Saturday 7 February 2009

A night at the ballet

When we booked the Royal Ballet's programme of three short works, it was done largely on the strength of the Seven Deadly Sins. As I noted when I saw it at the Edinburgh Festival two and a half years ago in a production by Opera Lyon:

The Seven Deadly Sins is far superior [to the Lindbergh Flight], both in terms of the text and the music. I am a little reluctant to describe it as an opera, almost more a cross between opera and ballet.

The story tells of Anna I and II (essentially two halves of the same character). II is played by 7 different dancers, each of whom goes through a sin as Anna goes on her quest to earn money for her family back in their home state (as she does so their house rises at the back).

As well as an impressive production, it also appealed for the excellent combination of Bertolt Brecht's words and Kurt Weill's music. The two other works, Carmen and DGV: danse à grande vitesse were pot luck. Interestingly, or perhaps because of the expectations, The Seven Deadly Sins was not the evening's high point, not even close.

The Seven Deadly Sins was ruined by a lack of bite in every respect. In the first place, the contribution from the pit, commanded by Martin Yates, was absolutely lacklustre. On the stage things were not much better. Martha Wainwright as Anna I was amplified. Now, this may have happened in Edinburgh, but since I didn't note it, I would be surprised. This was unsubtly done and her entire narration seemed something of a monotone. Where was the cutting satire? Where was the edge to questions such as "Right, Anna?". In these times where greed has wrought ruin on the financial system, such parallels should be even more powerful. They were not. I suspect the move from German to English may not have helped, but then the text used was worked on by Auden so it shouldn't be a let down.

On stage, too, things seemed dull. As the Annas journeyed across the states, there seemed little sense of travel. The family back in Mississippi, for whom the Annas toil, are present on a gantry above, which does not resemble the house. The way this rose, as they flung money about as the work progressed, was infinitely more powerful during the Lyon Opera production. Indeed, I thought the script called for the house to rise - it's difficult to tell because the Royal Ballet haven't bothered with a synopsis for any of the works. Folks, when you're charging £5 for a programme this simply is not good enough. Similarly, there were no surtitles and, while Wainwrite was clear enough, the chorus were not. This doubtless helped reduce the drama.

From a dance and choreography perspective, things were also fairly uninspiring: for a work filled with sex and depravity, it seemed remarkably dull in these regards.

After the first interval we returned for Carmen. Fortunately, while we had been at the bar, there had been a change in the pit and Pavel Sorokin was now in charge. The difference was unbelievable, suddenly the Royal Opera orchestra was playing to the standards one expects, it was taut and full of energy. This was doubtless helped by Rodion Shchedrin's wonderful arrangement of Bizet's score (Bizet not ranking amongst my favourite composers normally), not least the colour brought by the bevy of xylophones. It also made over-familiar tunes sound fresh where too often the appear tired.

On the minus side, Royal Ballet had once again decided that we didn't need a synopsis. Well, not having seen the opera before, and only owning one recording which I can't have listened to very much, I did. The ballet was not so clear that such was not required. I know I've moaned about this already, but it is such a glaring oversight that it bears repeating.

However, it was vividly coloured by designer Marie-Louise Ekman and engagingly and amusingly choreographed by Mats Ek. Especial highlights would include the cigars in the Habanera (what a shame one man's match didn't light), the smoke wafting up added wonderfully to atmosphere. I also like the circular touch of beginning and ending with Jose being executed (note, the execution is not mentioned in various online synopses so it may be an invention of the ballet). Tamara Rojo stands out particularly as Carmen, not least for the way she struts about the stage.

Not the greatest of works, certainly, but tremendous fun.

Another interval and another change in the pit, this time Daniel Capps stepped up for Michael Nyman's DGV: danse à grande vitesse. This also gets no synopsis, but we'll let them off since it's really an abstract work and so doesn't require one. Composed in 1993 for the Lille Festival and the opening of a TGV line (train à grande vitesse, France's high speed trains and the fastest in the world, excluding those that use magnetic levitation). Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon notes that "You can really see the countryside rushing by." How right he is, and so well suited is the piece for dance that it is a surprise to learn it was not written with this in mind.

The music is minimalist, and in many ways quite repetitive. And yet, it isn't: it changes, varies, evolves and builds in the most magical way. It conjures train travel so perfectly: the speed, the mix of the sameness of the carriage and the variety rushing by outside.

Wheeldon's work is stunning too, complementing the music perfectly. The ensemble rocking in the background at the start, like a gaggle on a tube train gripping the handles above, is delightful to watch. They capture the scenery whizzing past and generally just bring the music to life.

The abstract form at the back of the stage provides a train-like image, and also an effective screen for some of the action to take place behind. There is the wonderful quieter, slower, night time section (which the lighting matches wonderfully) and then the magnificent finale, accentuated by the three snare drums which have been placed just to the side of the stage in the stalls circle.

It's very difficult to describe in a way that does it justice and, sadly, Opus Arte (owned by Covent Garden) does not seem to have had the sense to record this onto DVD for posterity. What a pity. This astonishingly vivid piece is one of the more remarkable things I've seen and thoroughly to be recommended. Its 26 minutes alone justifies the price of admission.

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