Review: Royal Ballet in Ondine at Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep til 6 Jun 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 28 May 2009

Performance: 27 May

An aristocratic “Jack-the-lad” courts a noblewoman before falling for a nymphet, whose “death” leads to an unwitting betrayal and the ballet closes with his own demise. You could be forgiven for supposing that I am briefly describing Romeo & Juliet (flavoured by Swan Lake, La Sylphide or Giselle) but instead this is a rough synopsis of *Ondine*, Frederick Ashton’s fourth and final full-length ballet, which has recently celebrated its half-century. It just goes to show how ballet tales are so often variations on a theme.

The special ingredient is Ondine being a supernatural water nymph who gains a soul when she marries Palemon (in the 16th century definitions of the spirits, the Undine gained a soul only by marrying and bearing a mortal’s child but understandably Ashton ignored this messy detail).

However ludicrous the narrative, we can bask in the glorious designs of Lila de Nobili and Hans Werner Henze’s perfect score. The latter was weaved into Ashton’s concept as integrally and effectively as in the benchmark collaboration of Petipa and Tchaikovsky. Henze’s score – created from his Neapolitan home – translates the Mediterranean Sea into music; shimmering waters gently rippled by light summer breeze contrasting with the dark roaring anger of the storm. It is one of the great modern ballet scores (brilliantly conducted here by Barry Wordsworth). I own a rare recording bought from a specialist store many years ago but I can’t easily listen to it without seeing the ballet. It exists for me only in that total context. The dark, dank, dampness of de Nobili’s settings are equally effective, reminding us always of the merciless dominance of the great sea. The second act is especially memorable for the design impact of the harbour to shipwreck journey, viewed as if through a giant telescope, seamlessly complimented by choreography that reflects the powerful pull of the waves.

Most of her fellow performers could take note of the dramatic artistry in Alexandra Ansanelli’s portrayal of Ondine. The passion, the pleasure and the pride of performance flow from Ansanelli as fast and free as the waters we hear in Henze’s music and this should obliterate any thoughts of whether her arms ripple in the exact way Ashton intended. It’s a shame that I couldn’t feel the same sense of drama from her fellow players. As Palemon, there was little discernible variety in Valeri Hristov’s expressiveness. On the previous evening, he performed as Albrecht’s Squire in Giselle and had little more impact in this leading role. Hristov is a fine classical dancer and a particularly strong and attentive partner who will hopefully improve his stagecraft over time.

The Principal ballerina, Laura Morera, was undercast as Palemon’s original fancy, Bertha; essentially a character role that should provide an ideal opportunity to give exposure to senior dancers in the corps de ballet, rather than waste the talents of a leading Principal. The same could be said of Mara Galeazzi clocking on for the Act III Divertissement. There are over 90 dancers in the company and as we saw in the recent programme of new work in the Linbury, so many young artists deserve a chance to shine in solo roles. Instead a conservative approach to casting misses these opportunities. Most of the uncredited hunters, ondines, woodsprites, and sailors (etc) seemed to be merely going through their steps making no effective statement about whom they were and why they were on stage. All of this served to enhance Ansanelli’s dramatic domination but she is shortly to retire and, on this evidence, the Royal Ballet will greatly miss her performance skills.

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