With little fanfare, other than a cockerel crowing from the pit, the Royal Ballet crept to life for its new season. As rosy dawn fingered the horizon and sleepy hens emerged from their coop to stretch their wings, a blanket of contentment enveloped us. Here was no new production, no searing tragedy to tear our hearts asunder, but a gentle rom-com – Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, a tale of simple countryfolk. Smiles spread across the stoniest of faces, toes tapped to John Lanchbery's wittily arranged score. For a couple of hours, all was right with the world.
The plot is uncomplicated. Lise loves Colas, a carefree young farmer. However, her mother – the Widow Simone – is more ambitious and wants to pair her up with Alain, doltish son of a wealthy vineyard owner, Thomas. Lise resists the match and outwits her mum, who is won round with remarkable ease. All this takes place as the sheaves are gathered in at harvest time. The only cloud on the horizon is a storm (set to Rossini's tempest from Cinderella) which briefly interrupts the maypole dancing and merrymaking – and even that contains some clever visual gags, with Alain borne aloft astride his inside-out umbrella. Otherwise, it's sunshine all the way.
Osbert Lancaster's cartoonish designs look as fresh as ever and Ashton's choreography oozes with charm. It doesn't give dancers the chance to show off explosive power and fancy footwork, but is lyrical and graceful, though not without intricate steps. As with the last time this ballet was mounted, the opening performance was given to Laura Morera and Vadim Muntagirov as Lise and Colas. There is an understated ease with which Morera dances the role, lighting up the stage with her crisp footwork and megawatt smile. Her Lise is a bit of a minx, clearly used to outfoxing her mother. Muntagirov is almost too noble of bearing for the happy-go-lucky Colas, his princely arabesques exquisitely poised, his leaps dispatched with ease. They make a handsome couple, she literally tying him in knots in the Act I pas de ruban. The Fanny Essler pas de deux, set to some of Donizetti's most joyous music from L'elisir d'amore, was delightful, save a minor ribbon trip. Daffy humour doesn't come so easily to Muntagirov, but Morera handled her “When I am married” mime – and the resulting surprise when Colas leaps from the sheaves – amusingly well.
How terrific to hear this orchestra – soggy bottoms and all in the recent Barbiere – in such lithe form, expertly shepherded by Barry Wordsworth, with fat popcorn pizzicatos and juicy woodwinds. Tempi weren't excessively fast, but the playing was as light-footed and buoyant as the dancing on stage.
There are times when we need comedy to leaven the tragedy, something less profound to enjoy just for the sake of enjoyment. La Fille fits the bill perfectly. I cannot think of another ballet – or operatic comedy – where I shed a tear through sheer happiness. Contributing to the joy this evening were Thomas Whitehead's Widow Simone, a Les Dawson-style pantomime dame, with precise clogging and well-timed pratfalls, Gary Avis' swaggering Thomas, and Naughty Peregrine, the cute Shetland pony, who lived up to his nickname, requiring the employment of a shovel! But the highlight was Paul Kay's gauche Alain – a Suffolk country cousin to Britten's Albert Herring – whose timid tiptoes and awkward balances, allied to great comic timing, portrayed a lovable character. Even if he doesn't get the girl, the exuberance with which he recovers his umbrella is infectious.
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