Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Winter's Tale, Royal Opera House, 1 & 8 May 2014

It has been a while indeed since my last review -- I attribute it to a permutation of laziness and other priorities -- but a recent trip to the Royal Opera House has provided just the right surge of activation energy.

I saw the first cast twice on 1st and 8th May. I had been eagerly anticipating Winter's Tale because of the utter delight that was Alice, which I watched for the very first time on 9 March 2011 (the production now immortalized on DVD..!). That and Carnival of the Animals (by Pennsylvania Ballet) are the only Christopher Wheeldon productions I'd seen, and Winter's Tale made a marvelous addition to this small collection.

The Royal Ballet is by far my favorite ballet company in existence. Granted I haven't seen quite all of them, but since my first viewing of Sylvia in 2008, it struck me as a company that centers around acting and expression that I've not seen elsewhere (and I've come to learn it's indeed known for its narratives and dance actors). Winter's Tale is no exception.

As I understand, Wheeldon chose the piece specifically for the talented Edward Watson to channel jealousy into King Leontes like I doubt any other dancer really can. And that he does. Yet, I still found something wanting in the character Leontes. Yes, he's a very jealous man, but I suppose to his disadvantage, I'm comparing him with Prince Rudolph (the other token angsty fellow in the ballet library, and Ed Watson classic) and thus was expecting just a bit more texture to the character. Act 2, for me, could have been pruned to give space for Leontes (and Hermoine) to work through a few more emotions as he discovers the "infidelity". Polixenes too, as 1/6th of the principal cast, certainly could have been given more to do. At curtain call I could barely remember what he'd danced.

In general, I feel it would have been a much more effective narrative to focus on Leontes and Hermoine (and a juicy opportunity to see more of Lauren Cuthbertson's hauntingly beautiful portrayal of this maligned yet resilient woman), but at the same time I know it would have been a far less vibrant and poignant piece on the whole without the contrasting levity of Bohemia in the middle. Anyhow in this I echo Alastair Macauly's NYT review completely that most people feel it should be pruned somehow -- but where exactly? It indeed is too rich a tale for ballet perhaps.

What truly made the ballet for me though was Paulina. First reason being that she holds the piece together, what with all its quick shifts in time and space, and she's essentially its Deus Ex Machina, "[masterminding] the happiness of others", as Alastair Macaulay again so aptly puts. But the main reason she's pivotal for me, is because I am fantastically biased towards Zenaida Yanowsky and everything she does. All of her roles have an uparalleled richness and complexity provided by intelligent timing, heartfelt emotion, and purposeful use of every extremity, as she apparently does quite intentionally. As such the way she lashes out at Leontes after Hermoine's death; her cautious introduction of baby Perdita; her lamentful caretaking of Leontes; her "own private desolation" at the end (thank you again Alastair), all move the soul deeply and provide most of the additional emotional layers to the story. That said, I had the opportunity to compare the May 1, 8, and 28 April (via live telecast) performances, and I very much appreciate the Paulina she settled on by May 8 the most. In April, Paulina is more angst-ridden and hateful towards Leontes; by May it's more shock and stoicism, with a greater understanding towards Leontes, which helps the audience to empathize with him as well.

As for the actual steps themselves -- they didn't do that much for me. I remember being absolutely blown away by the choreography in Alice, but here, they were often underwhelming. I agree that there could have been more effective language for Leontes' jealousy (again, Alastair, whose reviews I now realize I should read more). It's an easily ignored complaint though, because the lighting, the designs, the (gorgeous) music and the general velocity of the piece do more than enough to embed you in the story telling. The choreography I did fancy in particular were Hermoine's pleading arabesques in sequence, the Florizel and Perdita pas de deux, the Bohemians' general happy dance, and Paulina's statue dance at the opening of Act 3.

At the end of the day what I simply want out of this ballet is.. More. More development of the story in Acts 1 and 3 without cutting 2, and more dancing from the 6 extremely talented leads. This is the kind of ballet I'd be happy to sit through for a good 3.5 - 4 hours to flesh out its meat. I'm sure it'll instead by pruned by the next staging though, and I anticipate I'll be sad to have lost whatever went.

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