Based on Tchaikovsky’s most symphonic ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty is less a fairy tale and more the apex of Russian imperial style. It has a very special place nestled at the heart of The Royal Ballet's repertoire, being the work that once upon a time reopened the Royal Opera House in 1946. It is the company’s signature work. In 2006 Dame Monica Mason and Christopher Newton revisited that historic post-war production, based on Oliver Messel’s original designs, with Petipa’s choreography supplemented by Ashton, Dowell and Wheeldon. It is the height of grandeur, brilliantly revived here as a sumptuous early Christmas gift.
A gauzy, watercolour dropcloth rises to reveal sets inspired by French Baroque architecture, opulent costumes throwing us into the court of King Florestan XXIV. For the christening of the Princess Aurora, the opening night offered a stellar ensemble (A charm? An enchantment? Pick your own collective noun.) of fairies to bestow their gifts on the baby. Yuhui Choe’s limpid line as the Fairy of the Crystal Fountain, Francesca Hayward’s darting Songbird, Yasmine Naghdi’s feathery steps barely kissing the stage as the Woodland Glade splendid. All three perform Aurora during the ballet’s lengthy run. But one fairy has carelessly been forgotten from the guest list. Kristen McNally cackled and hissed as the wicked Carabosse, attended by sinister mice – wonderfully malevolent, but do we really need recorded thunder for her arrival? This is Tchaikovsky, not pantomime. With Claire Calvert’s ethereal, poised Lilac Fairy downgrading Carabosse’s curse from death to deep sleep, the Prologue has done its job.
Beauty doesn’t offer its leads the same expressive, interpretative qualities as Romeo and Juliet, Giselle or Swan Lake. Aurora and Florimund, who wakes her from her century-long slumber with a kiss, are pure storybook princess and prince. In the three acts of the ballet, Aurora has to encompass joyous birthday girl, heavenly vision and radiant bride. Sarah Lamb was every inch the princess from the start, with pristine footwork, steely balances in a polished Rose Adagio, glinting, diamond-sharp, in the Wedding Divertissement – an Aurora truly at home in this majestic setting.
Vadim Muntagirov was born to play princes and poets and his Florimund was both noble and admiring. There was an almost languid ease to his leaps and turns, every inch the aristocrat in his stately arabesques. The mime sequence in Act II, where Calvert’s Lilac Fairy reveals the vision of Aurora, found Muntagirov on expressive form. He partnered Lamb sensitively, the pair carrying off spectacular fish dives in their regal Act III pas de deux.
After Carabosse is defeated with a flick of the Lilac Fairy’s wand, and Aurora awakened, narrative is set aside in the final act for a grand celebration, giving Tchaikovsky and Petipa the chance to indulge in some fun, raiding Charles Perrault’s fairytales. Paul Kay’s Puss-in-Boots and Leticia Stock’s White Cat purred and clawed kittenishly, Eric Underwood’s Wolf stalked Romany Pajdak’s Red Riding Hood voraciously, and Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campell were superb in the Princess Florine/Bluebird variation, Campbell dazzling and dynamic, Hayward exquisitely musical in her phrasing.
Valery Ovsyanikov led a robust account of Tchaikovsky’s glittering, Fabergé-egg of a score, not without a few brass blips but with intricate woodwind tracery. Leader Peter Schulmeister balanced syrup and sinew in his violin tone for Aurora’s Act I variation. Ten different casts are fielded by The Royal Ballet in this run, but at this time of year, over-indulgence is permitted, yes?
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