The Sleeping Beauty awakes once more and all is well, and all will be well. Here is a ballet that is truly cherished in Covent Garden as being of signature significance to both the House and the company and a bellwether of The Royal Ballet’s form and capability for over seventy years. On the evidence of this performance, there is every reason to be cheerful, not just for the richness of character performances throughout the long cast list but for the excellence of those arriving anew to add further lustre to these beloved roles.

Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora) and Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora) and Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

One of the great strengths of British ballet – if not its cornerstone – is a sense of theatre and clarity of expression and these qualities were showcased to maximum effect at this opening performance, the first of two dozen shows, running until mid-January. With such a large cast, there is an inevitability of enforced changes on the day of the performance and this evening witnessed the substitution of one experienced character artist, Bennet Gartside, by another with Thomas Whitehead a replacement Catalabutte, the King’s master of ceremonies. These two men have a collective experience of fifty years’ at The Royal Ballet and – if I may be allowed a footballing analogy – it is like having Lionel Messi coming from the bench to replace Cristiano Ronaldo!

Whitehead’s comedy as the pompous, inept (and yet kind-hearted) courtier was a joy, not least in his pained humiliation at being dewigged and plucked by Carabosse as punishment for her omission from the guest list for Princess Aurora’ christening. Such riches were studded throughout the cast from Christopher Saunders as the impetuous King Florestan and Elizabeth McGorian as his elegant queen, to the indefatigable Gary Avis as the English Prince, once more donning that outrageously flamboyant Royalist costume to become the rock upon which Princess Aurora’s Rose Adagio is secured.

Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Continuing the strength of these traditions has been a masterpiece of baton-passing as exemplified here by Kristen McNally’s barnstorming performance as Carabosse, a magnificent Maleficent, killing the mime sequences as this dominatrix with a spindle as her implement of choice. While she can imperiously mock the quintet of gift-giving fairies (delicious cameos by Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Mayara Magri, Claire Calvert, Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Yuhui Choe) Carabosse is, of course, no match for the magic of the Lilac Fairy; here exquisitely portrayed with a mix of delicate ethereality and majestic strength by Fumi Kaneko, a fast-rising star.

The various fairy tale divertissements of the final act rattled along with a seamless integrity. Magri and O’Sullivan swapped their fairy dust to become Florestan’s sisters; Ashley Dean was a feisty White Cat flirt-fighting with Paul Kay’s Puss-in-Boots; and Romany Pajdak provided a winsome Red Riding Hood, outwitted by Nicol Edmonds’ Wolf (although frankly anyone could have been under that mask)! The highlight of these celebrations was a contender for the best Bluebird pas de deux that I have witnessed, danced with alacrity, brio and charm by Francesca Hayward (who is imminently to hit our movie screens as another kind of white cat) and Marcelino Sambé; two of The Royal Ballet’s brightest stars, both now and for the foreseeable future. These stage performances were enhanced by an impressive orchestral achievement under the direction of Simon Hewett.

Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

This is a ballet for ballerinas with their cavaliers offering a helping hand and a jump or two to keep them looking virtuosic. The hero, Prince Florimund, does not appear until two intervals have passed by. Initially a gormless rather than heroic figure, who needs to be encouraged to kiss this sleeping beauty (although nowadays kissing a sleeping stranger is likely to get even a prince locked up), he is portrayed as an impetuous innocent abroad by Matthew Ball – as handsome a prince as one is ever likely to encounter – and while he was perhaps a little cautious with the key highlights in the grand pas de deux it was nonetheless a charming endeavour.

As Princess Aurora, Yasmine Naghdi confirmed that she has prima ballerina qualities in abundance. Perhaps she started a little nervously – a lot rested on her delicate shoulders – but, after defeating the anxieties of the Rose Adagio with helping hands from her four suitors, Naghdi flourished with an assured lustre in every element of a divine performance.

Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora) and Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Yasmine Naghdi (Princess Aurora) and Matthew Ball (Prince Florimund)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The wonder of this production, masterminded by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton back in 2006, lies in the recreation of Oliver Messel's glorious vintage designs with the input of the late Peter Farmer. What a sumptuous legacy they have left and how well it is honoured by this generation of The Royal Ballet's staff and dancers. One viewing is nowhere near enough.

*****