Refurbishments at home have brought an unusual sense of adventure to The Royal Ballet. While the Open Up project is transforming the Royal Opera House and, in particular, elevating the Linbury Studio Theatre into a second world-class stage, the company has been busily borrowing second homes during January: following The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the Roundhouse, it moved on to the Barbican Theatre for this brief weekend run of Les Enfants Terribles.

Zenaida Yanowsky © Bill Cooper | ROH 2017
Zenaida Yanowsky
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2017
This chamber dance opera by Philip Glass was first performed in 1996, the last of a trilogy of his works based on the writings of Jean Cocteau; following Orphée (1993) and La Belle et la Bête (1995). The première of Les Enfants Terribles – in Switzerland – was choreographed by Susan Marshall and this new production, directed by Javier de Frutos, substitutes his choreography, although retaining the original concept of matching eight dancers to the four singers and three pianists.

Some of the production’s flaws – and there are many – are bound into the operatic structure’s relevance to narrative. Cocteau’s “enfants terribles” are brother and sister, Paul and Lise, who become progressively isolated from the world. Left to their own devices, the siblings develop a sinister, psychological game that can only be played in the room that they share. Crucially, in terms of the eventual plot dénouement, the winner always has the last word. Incest is neither mentioned in Cocteau’s novel nor in the opera it inspired; but De Frutos provides a silent prologue of the adolescent siblings bathing together (multiplied four times since there are four dancing couples, playing together, in four bathtubs), which brings the otherwise unsaid sexual associations to the fore. But, despite the director’s best efforts to gloss the Glass up, the opera grossly underplays the time that the siblings spend alone together, concentrating instead on events largely outside “The Room”.

The production’s second flaw is self-inflicted; through a mobile set that requires revolving panels to be moved with relentless frequency by the performers themselves, notably in the very busy first act. This exhausting irritation was augmented by long sequences in which the dancers climb and descend stairs attached to said panels, their clattering feet resonating unpleasantly against the music. The set had already become a major distraction even before one of the panels refused to move. The performers gamely tried to keep going as it wobbled with the force of some unseen help trying to free it; but, to no avail. The performance was halted for several minutes and then restarted from a much earlier point with the resultant delay adding more than 30 minutes to the run-time. For a major company, performing in a major London theatre, this has to be seen as a major fail.

The company around Gyula Nagy (sitting in the centre) © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017
The company around Gyula Nagy (sitting in the centre)
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017

The third flaw was to clad said panels in digital imagery, ranging from simple English translations of key elements of the sung text (in French) to distracting psychedelic patterns, which did little to enhance the action, serving only to make a busy set, even busier. An exception to this came with the funny and purposeful film that presented the whirlwind romance of Lise with Michael, who dies in a car crash during the brief period between their marriage and honeymoon. In terms of the production’s design, the only element that worked well for me was Jean-Marc Puissant’s excellent costumes.

A main attraction was the rare opportunity to see dancers of The Royal Ballet share the stage with their contemporaries from modern dance and this did not fail to provide several memorable moments; for example, in a duet between Jonathan Goddard as one of the many iterations of Paul (also, Michael in the aforementioned film) and Zenaida Yanowsky.

Edward Watson, Jonathan Goddard, Thomasin Gulgec © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017
Edward Watson, Jonathan Goddard, Thomasin Gulgec
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2017
The set malfunction enabled a welcome re-run of a particularly sensual duet between Yanowsky and Edward Watson but despite excellent work by all eight dancers, they often appeared anonymous within the busy environment that surrounded them. De Frutos’ choreography was a refreshing mix of gestural characterisation and neoclassical movement but, too often, it seemed overpowered by the surrounding envelope of distraction.

This criticism does not apply to a remarkable musical tour de force; both in the superb patterns of intensity from the orchestra of three pianos (played with strength and sensitivity by Robert Clark, James Hendry and Kate Shipway) and outstanding singing. Gyula Nagy brought a vivid picture of pathetic vulnerability to the introverted, taciturn Paul; while Jennifer Davies gave a towering sense of the histrionic, self-aware and invincible Lise. Her final heart-rending aria before shooting herself to beat her fatally-poisoned brother to death – and thus win “The Game” – brought shivers down my spine. This incredible musical performance was sadly not well enough matched by the visual experience and I feel that a better production lies under much unnecessary veneer.