Sunday 1 July 2012

The Prince of the Pagodas, or Who Would Have Imagined Britten Could Be So Romantic

I set off for the Royal Opera House on Friday night with some slight misgivings. My parents saw this show on Wednesday and their report was lukewarm. It had been a heavy week at work and it took some effort to drag myself back out of the house. But, as is so often the case, this particular show proved to be just the tonic I needed and a marvellous reward for a hard slog of a week.

The true revelation of the evening was Britten's score. I think I do actually have it on CD somewhere and therefore must have listened to it but I cannot recall it making any real impression at all, and I had booked out of curiousity rather than love. I can only say that it totally beguiled me. Yes, it may partly have been the effect of hearing a great orchestrator at work after Thursday night's one song to the tune of the same song at the Coliseum. But I think it is more than this. The sound world is beguiling, from the use of percussion to the brass and woodwind solos. There is a marvellous romantic, mysterious sweep especially to the second act which just completely carried me away. Barry Wordsworth drew compelling playing from an on form Royal Opera Orchestra for both of whom the cheers at the end were deservedly loud.

The design matched the music. Castles frame the stage, the Emperor whizzes around on a rather fun Heath Robertson type wheelchair, the lighting adds effectively to the mood. However, the more astute amongst you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the dancing or Kenneth MacMillan's choreography. I have stressed on previous occasions that while certain ballets have blown me away I am not a balletomane, so I don't feel as comfortable judging ballet choreography as I do other things. After a non-descript first half I thought things improved, but overall somehow MacMillan just didn't seem to rise to the magic of the music. All the emotion and character was there and the dancing just didn't quite match up with it. The Second Act has the best of it and so far as I could judge Sarah Lamb (Princess Rose) and Federico Bonelli (The Prince) danced perfectly well there and throughout but I wasn't held by the choreography as I have been in other ballets. A final interesting point was the reported problem of the story. This also, in advance, I expected to bother me. I tend to have very little patience with narrative incoherance (and hence with directors who do violence to narratives, but that's another story). But somehow, and this is probably the only time I will ever write this, the fact that the scenario of this ballet is rather muddled didn't bother me. I welcomed how much it left much to the imagination. Perhaps it was just my mood on Friday night, but I can only report that for this occasion the approach completely worked for me.

I think this was my first encounter with MacMillan's choreography and I wasn't overly wowed by it, but I am thrilled to have had the chance to hear Britten's score live. It deserves to be played more than it is. There is a challenge there to choreographers – I would love to see somebody else take it up.

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