May 23, 2012 5:38 pm

La Sylphide, Royal Opera House, London

Steven McRae’s obsessive hero is the most outstanding element in a well-nigh perfect production

A handful of superlatives to begin. The new Royal Ballet programme of Ballo della regina and La Sylphide is tremendous. Johan Kobborg’s staging of La Sylphide is the best I know, the most sensitive to Bournonville’s drama and manner. And Steven McRae’s James is the finest (bar one) that I have known in all my years of adoring this beautiful flower of Romanticism.

Here is a ballet which I saw as the Royal Danish Ballet ventured from Copenhagen for the first time in the 1950s, and an old repertory had not been amended and infuriatingly rethought, and Bournonville was still an enrapturing novelty. Kobborg’s virtues in this production have been to choose honourable scenery, to open cuts in the score and use his exceptional knowledge of Bournonville to borrow the master’s own steps. The result is well-nigh perfect, admirably danced by the Royal Ballet, a masterpiece honoured.

And nowhere more so than in McRae’s reading. The character is the archetypal Romantic hero, maddened and consumed by passion, doomed thereby as a sacrifice to the wildest dreams of Romanticism in its first frenzies. (La Sylphide is a fruit of its 1830s heyday.) Like Niels Kehlet, my greatest James and a dancer of genius in Copenhagen, McRae conveys the obsessive passion that is born with his first sight of the sylph. The world is well lost, and the fevers of his portrait, the exact and glorious statement of his dances, the sense of a passion racing towards its tragic conclusion, is superbly done. An astounding debut.

I love Alina Cojocaru’s sylphide, so pretty in pose, so delicious in her airy flights, so right in feeling, and I much admire Valentino Zuchetti’s Gurn, step and style admirably shown. On Monday night the poor sylph’s final journey to heaven looked, alas, like air-mailed laundry, but this is easily changed.

About the revival of Ballo della regina, I offer bouquets yet again to Marianela Nuñez as she sails through Balanchine’s portrait of the dazzling, joyous Merrill Ashley (who has splendidly set the piece) and will report further after a subsequent performance. An exhilarating evening. Bravos.

5 stars

www.roh.org.uk

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