London’s unofficial Tchaikovsky ballet festival continued with The Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, a signature work, which succeeded The Nutcracker at The Royal Opera House while down the road English National Ballet was completing a final week of Swan Lake at the London Coliseum.  How lucky we Londoners are!

Act 3 of The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

The Sleeping Beauty has a very special place in the annals of The Royal Ballet as the performance that launched both the company’s tenure at The Royal Opera House after the hiatus of WW2 (when the auditorium had been a dance hall) and its international acclaim due to the resounding success of the first New York performances of 1949.  In that production, Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music was brought into visual splendour through the sumptuous designs of Oliver Messel.  The company has revived the ballet regularly over the years, including productions by Anthony Dowell (with quirky designs by Maria Björnson), which endured for 64 shows between 1994 and 1997; and another by Natalia Makarova, which lasted for just 40 performances in 2003/4.  Wisely, the then director, Dame Monica Mason, working with Christopher Newton, went back to the Messel designs (augmented through additional work by the late Peter Farmer) in a 'new-old' production to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, in 2006.  This is now the most performed (it will have had 172 outings by the end of this current run) of the nine productions that the company has mounted.  Like Princess Aurora after her hundred-year sleep, this wonderful ballet has not only been revived but revitalised to seem as fresh and vibrant as one supposes the audience must have felt on that auspicious first night of 20th February 1946.   

Most classical ballets have particular choreographic highlights but The Sleeping Beauty is crammed with so many gems bequeathed by its initial choreographer, Marius Petipa, and all of these vital dances were performed superbly, which is as much a great credit to the coaching staff as to the performers.  It was particularly notable how some of the less popular episodes shone out.  Amongst the many wedding divertissements, it is usually the Bluebird pas de deux and White Cat/Puss-in-Boots sequence that draws the most attention and while these were performed admirably (Joseph Sissens as a light and airy Bluebird; Isabella Gasparini, a delightful Princess Florine; Mica Bradbury and Leo Dixon as the comedic, bickering cats), the opening pas de trois for Florestan (Calvin Richardson) and his sisters (Ashley Dean and Claire Calvert), often an hors d’oeuvre for the dances to come, was an absolute delight.  Throughout the entire cast, every named role was performed with the mix of enthusiasm, affection and assuredness that attests to the certainty that this experience was cherished.

Joseph Sissens as Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Of particular note was Thomas Whitehead’s characterisation of the hapless Catalabutte, the pompous but useless Master of Ceremonies, following in a long tradition of expressive character acting; and the marvellous, charismatic and alluring performance of Kristen McNally as the evil fairy, Carabosse, following another great tradition in the clarity of her mime.  The five fairies (Gasparini and Calvert joined by Annette Buvoli, Sophie Allnatt and Yuhui Choe) were enchanting with Fumi Kaneko a riveting, attractive Lilac Fairy. Continuing the characterful traditions of the company, Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian brought clarity of purpose to the actions of the King and Queen.  My only minor quibble was in some group work, where issues of timing and unity were sometimes not sufficiently tight amongst the male cavaliers and the general corps.   

Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in Act 2 of The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

Three roles make or break any performance of The Sleeping Beauty and this performance had the great advantage of three of the world’s best at the helm.  Firstly, The Sleeping Beauty is nothing without its music and, under the direction of Koen Kessels (one of the world’s most sought-after ballet conductors) the orchestra was superb, in both quality and tempo, not least in the haunting violin solos of Melissa Carstairs.   Prince Florimund does not appear until Act 2 but Vadim Muntagirov (literally) soared in the role.  His attention to the fine details of technique is remarkable even while he is preparing for and delivering powerful and virtuosic movement.  He even does dim-witted well, taking an age to realise that it is his task to kiss and therefore reawaken the girl! 

Act 2 of The Sleeping Beauty
© ROH | Andrej Uspenski

And, as that (now 116-year-old) girl, Marianela Nuñez gave a performance as Princess Aurora that was extraordinary in every way.  I have no idea how Margot Fonteyn danced in 1946, 1949 (and thereafter) but her performances then have become iconic references in the history of The Royal Ballet.  As the current star ballerina, Nuñez (and those that have coached her) honours that tradition with such reverence and elite artistry and skill that her own performance should become a memory just as special.          

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