Perhaps it's written in the skies why Carlos Acosta's staging of Don Quixote for The Royal Ballet looks tame. In the outer acts, fluffy white clouds scud across powder blue. For all the talk of “Latin warmth” in Kevin O'Hare's programme note, for all the dancers' vocal interjections of “Evviva!”, it's mostly very polite, very English – more Manchester than La Mancha. It's only in Act 2, with its windmill silhouetted by an outsized sunset, that we sense Spanish heat. Yet when Acosta throws in flamenco footwork and guitarists strumming round a gypsy campfire, it jars.

<i>Don Quixote</i> © ROH | Johan Persson (2013)
Don Quixote
© ROH | Johan Persson (2013)

Where Acosta does score is in his effort to make the Don a less comedic, more “quixotic” character. By providing a vision of Dulcinea in the prologue (an ethereal Gina Storm-Jensen), it gives our deluded knight-errant a vague sense of purpose, although there is always the feeling that – despite Christopher Saunders' noble bearing – Don Quixote is a bit part in his own show. He even gets upstaged by Rocinante, here a trundling wicker horse. Knocked out whilst tilting at windmills, the Don has a dream, transported to a magic garden populated by garish pink gerberas, where he meets the Queen of the Dryads. This is where The Royal Ballet seems most at home, the corps excelling in Petipa's classical choreography, Fumi Kaneko a radiant queen, Anna Rose O'Sullivan an enchanting Amour.

The enchanted Garden of Dulcinea © ROH | Johan Persson (2013)
The enchanted Garden of Dulcinea
© ROH | Johan Persson (2013)

Elsewhere, it's a touch safe. The gypsies lack earthy impact and the tavern scene – dingily lit – is rather subdued, the clapping to the dancing impeccable, but courteous. Even the houses slide and glide into position daintily. The Royal's Don Q is a charming romcom in subtle, pretty pastels. There were moments when I longed for a touch of brazen Bolshoi bravado. The closest we came was the fiery pairing of Ryochi Hirano and Laura Morera as a swaggering Espada and a sultry Mercedes. Minkus' castanet-fuelled score is pretty vapid, but deserved a more assured performance than it received here under Martin Yates, the brass playing particularly undistinguished.

Ryochi Hirano (Espada) and Laura Morera (Mercedes) © ROH | Johan Persson (2013)
Ryochi Hirano (Espada) and Laura Morera (Mercedes)
© ROH | Johan Persson (2013)

Don Quixote's chivalry is not the main focus of the ballet, however. The thrust of the libretto is based on the part of Cervantes' novel which involves Quiteria (Kitri) and her lover Basilio, who eventually outwit her father (Gary Avis), who wants to marry her off to the foppish – but rich – Gamache (Bennet Gartside). These central roles were wonderfully filled by Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov.

Marianela Núñez (Kitri) and Vadim Muntagirov (Basilio) © ROH | Andrej Uspenski
Marianela Núñez (Kitri) and Vadim Muntagirov (Basilio)
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Núñez was a kittenish Kitri, a tease with an impudent pout but without sharp claws. Technically brilliant, particularly her chaîné turns in her solo as Dulcinea, she turned on the dazzle in the final act's grand pas, fouettés whisked and airy.

Muntagirov is really starting to come out of his shell as an actor. His “Barber of Barcelona” was endearing and gauche – he doesn't do the cocky wit of Acosta – yet his comic timing at his fake death was very funny. And his dancing! Muntagirov's thrilling leaps – impossibly high – and whipped turns astonished, yet he seems to have acres of time and his dancing always has an elegant understatement. He and Núñez share a very special partnership and they were lauded like heroes at the curtain call.

***11