Choreographed by Mikhail Fokine for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with stunning designs by the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, this is a sumptuous production and the Royal Ballet do full justice to its blend of ballet and Russian folk tradition.
Principal dancer Yasmine Naghdi makes her assured debut in the title role. This Firebird is not the gentle avian persona of a bewitched princess, à la Swan Lake, but rather a freedom-loving, frisky, wild animal. Its choreography is fast and spiky, with lots of flying jetés and swift changes of direction, all of which Naghdi translates into a convincing performance.
As Ivan Tsarevich, Edward Watson has a lot of mime, a bit of tricky partnering, but not much actual dancing to do, which suits him well on his return to the stage after an injury lay off of almost a year. Christina Arestis is an alluring Tsarevna, suitably regal in the final wedding scene; but as so often, the show is almost stolen by the great character actor Gary Avis as The Immortal Kostcheï.
The Royal Ballet, The Firebird, Gary Avis as The Immortal Kostcheï (c) ROH 2019, photo Tristram Kenton
The second ballet of the evening brings a complete change of mood: Frederick Ashton picked a Romantic Chopin score for his distillation of Turgenev’s play, A Month in the Country.
Ashton’s chamber piece is set in a hot summer in a Russian country house (meticulous designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman), where a fragile family balance is disrupted by the arrival of Beliaev, a tutor for the family’s young son.
The tutor (Matthew Ball) becomes a potent magnet: for the young Kolia (James Hay in a ghastly blond wig), he’s a new and exciting companion, for the maid, Katia (Romany Pajdak) the butt of some earthy inconsequential flirting; for the family ward, Vera (Francesca Hayward), the focus of a powerful teenage infatuation.
His strongest, most devastating impact, though, is on Natalia Petrovna – the lady of the house, who feels stifled by the heat of summer and her passionless life.
Marianela Nuñez is a sublime Natalia Petrovna, moving from languid boredom to full on, desperate passion. When her back bends in total abandon, when she clings to Beliaev – a competent but strangely muted performance from Matthew Ball – or pulls away overcome by a sense of duty, she conveys through her expressive dancing a devastating whirlwind of contradictory emotions.
The Royal Ballet, A Month in the Country, Marianela Nuñez and Mathew Ball (c) ROH 2019 photo Tristram Kenton
Francesca Hayward is a girlish, besotted teenager, baffled and hurt in her jealous confrontation with Natalia; James Hay is boyish in his playful, but technically demanding early solo.
After this swirling cauldron of emotions, the sparkle of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, choreographed on Bizet’s filigree score, offers a welcome contrast to send us all home on a high.
For each of the Symphony’s four movements – Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Allegro Vivace Finale – Balanchine uses the same formation: a female corps all in white, a lead couple and two secondary pairs, the men in all black, the women in glittering white, before the entire cast come together for an artily crowded finale.
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Symphony in C (c) ROH 2019 photo Tristram Kenton
Fumi Kaneko, replacing an injured Osipova, was superlative in the opening Allegro, the rapier-like precision of her movements exhilarating; and she was perfectly matched by a fiery and impossibly elegant Vadim Muntagirov.
Sarah Lamb, partnered by Nicol Edmonds, stood out in the languorous Andante, Alexander Campbell showed his superb batterie and easy flowing movement as Yuhui Choe’s partner in the Scherzo; Francesca Hayward and James Hay returned for the Finale.
The Royal Ballet corps were in excellent shape. There were a few lapses here and there, but perhaps that can’t be helped in a piece the precision and complexity of which makes it fiendishly difficult to dance.
It was, nevertheless, a delight to watch.
|What||The Royal Ballet, The Firebird Bill Review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
04 Jun 19 – 14 Jun 19, 19:30 Dur.: 3 hours inc two intervals
|Website||Click to book via the ROH|