It was a bittersweet evening at the Royal Opera House. We were about to see the beginning of the end of the dazzling career of Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta, who has been wowing audiences with his dancing here for seventeen years. Now, at the age of 42, he has decided to hang up his canvas ballet slippers. For his Royal Ballet swansong, he has choreographed Carmen, a one-act ballet, in which he will (at different performances) also be dancing the roles of both Don Jose and Escamillo. With the auditorium filled with his fans, expectations at the première were naturally high with everyone willing him to succeed. And thanks to his magnetic presence, the scintillating Marianela Núñez, and an unexpectedly slick Federico Bonelli, the long applause at the end showed they were not disappointed.

Federico Bonelli (Escamillo) and Marianela Núñez (Carmen) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Federico Bonelli (Escamillo) and Marianela Núñez (Carmen)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Acosta, who created a fun-filled, full length Don Quixote for the company two years ago has encapsulated the story of Carmen into one act of action, mixing elements of contemporary, Spanish and street dancing together with Carmen’s pointe shoes. He has also included musicians and singers on stage. The set is eye-catching with its huge ring of fire dominating the action and into which stands the silhouette of the Bull/Fate figure, complete with Highland cattle horns and muscular body.

Dressed in a Confederate Army uniform and cap, Acosta made a convincing Don José, succumbing to the wiles of the flirty Carmen, only later to be destroyed by her. As to be expected, his still powerful dancing was imbued with natural heart-rending acting and he had in Núñez the perfect partner. She simply was Carmen from her flirtatious glances, her fiery sensual dancing, her enticing actions and her sensual poses, and there were some hot love scenes to enact also. Bonelli’s Escamillo was proud, cocky and full of himself, and he played it well. The other dancers often got lost in the gloom of the darkened stage, especially when they were dressed in black. However, we all appreciated the boys’ fine striptease – right down to their underpants – during the opening number!

Carlos Acosta (Don José) and Marianela Núñez (Carmen) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Carlos Acosta (Don José) and Marianela Núñez (Carmen)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It was the music alas that didn’t do so well. Bizet’s score is electrifying, Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite is pure magic, but this one – arranged and orchestrated by Martin Yates – seemed a tame, thin collection of famous arias with very little of the excitement or anticipation that the music demands. Hopefully it, and the playing of it, will improve at subsequent performances. There’s a lot to praise about this production, but there are also places where it could be tightened somewhat.

Carmen was the final work on the evening’s mixed bill programme. It opened with Liam Scarlett’s Viscera, originally created for Miami City Ballet in 2012, and first performed by Royal Ballet the same year. Like its title indicates, it is a gutsy work involving brisk, often brutal throws and tosses, off-balance dancing, with endless physical energy propelled throughout. More in the style of Balanchine, its strong dancers show off sharp attacking legs and constant, sometimes syncopated movement to Lowell Liebermann’s Piano Concerto no. 1. But it also showed glimpses of Scarlett’s Royal Ballet training in the quicksilver change of direction, speedy small footwork and a hint of humour. Laura Morera brought a purpose to her solos with sparkling eyes and a half smile that hinted at living a story inside her unknown to her audience. Leticia Stock and Nehemiah Kish performed the pas de deux – she perfectly sculpturing her limbs and body around him, while he proved an excellent partner.

Sarah Lamb (<i>Afternoon of a Faun</i>) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sarah Lamb (Afternoon of a Faun)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

In sharp contrast, Jerome RobbinsAfternoon of a Faun took us to the languorous dreamy world of a ballet studio where two dancers become completely absorbed by their own reflection. The pristine white studio uses the audience as the ‘mirror’ into which the dancers stare at themselves. Vadim Muntagirov is the faun-like creature who stretches and luxuriates in solitude before, seemingly for the first time, noticing his own body in the mirror. Sarah Lamb is the young girl who comes to the studio to practise, and who also falls prey to the narcissism of a dancer, studying herself from every angle. Even when the two dance together, their eyes are kept on the mirror. And it is only when the boy gives her a gentle peck on her cheek that the girl is awakened from her trance of self-love and softly touches her face before leaving him to return to sleep. It is an atmospheric ballet, theatrical in its simplicity and a perfect venue to show off these two dancers well. Lamb has a sweet innocent face and she danced with a soft, silky technique. Montagirov is also a smooth performer, showing his strong Russian training with feline gentleness. His elegant moves and musicality allowed his steps to melt seamlessly into each other.

And then came one of Balanchine’s party pieces – Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed here by Iana Salenko and Steven McRae. It is a display piece to show off virtuosity, filled with high-speed moments. McRae whizzes on and off stage like a gust of wind chasing autumn leaves, spins furiously, and lingers in the air when leaping. Berlin-based Salenko, replacing the injured Natalia Osipova, may be petite in size but packs extra strong and well-placed technique. Oozing confidence she proved McRae’s perfect muse, as they bounced off each other’s energy, though I would have liked to see more lyricism along with the technical fireworks.