Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, Opéra Bastille, Paris – review

The celebrations scheduled for the tricentenary of the Paris Opera Ballet School will be upon us next week, and with them the inevitable question: what exactly is the French style today? Some clues may lie in the monumental company work that now returns to the repertoire at the Opéra Bastille, John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

Indeed, the Paris dancers haven’t looked more at home on stage all season. Neumeier’s longstanding relationship with the POB is a meeting of minds: his intellectual brand of neoclassicism speaks to the hieratic elegance and highbrow posture that are the hallmarks of the troupe today. Neumeier, who celebrates 40 years at the helm of the Hamburg Ballet this year, is better known for his narrative works; this 1975 symphonic ballet was an unusual challenge to take on in 2009, but it is a towering achievement, the work of a true neoclassical master who has devoted no fewer than six full-length works to Mahler symphonies.

Abstract may be a misleading description for the dance odyssey that is Third Symphony. A life cycle seems to repeat itself as we follow the lead Man (Karl Paquette) through the six movements, here shrouded in wistful solemnity. Neumeier’s is a serious reading of the score, the dance deliberate and starkly aesthetic with simple leotards and tights for the large cast. Patient, unhurried musicality greets Mahler’s slow but radical mood shifts. At two hours straight of pure dance, and with a few repetitive sections, the ballet requires endurance from its audience, but repays it abundantly with the kind of sweeping ambition ballet often shies away from.

Neumeier starts on a colossal architectural scale with the first movement, Yesterday. A heroic allegory in the Béjart or Soviet mould of what may be the wars of years past, the scene conjures vivid patterns and showcases POB’s superb male corps, led with panache by Matthias Heymann. Summer and Autumn follow, a loose reference to the ballet topos of the seasons, realised with beautiful clarity. As light fades into melancholy contemplation, love teases the Man from a distance in the form of enigmatic soloist women. An alternatively childlike and elegiac Angel guides him through the final movements, as dancers return, re-living earlier roles, and the 50-strong cast surges forward in lifts of linear beauty.

While some key roles could have used a seasoning of star power, Third Symphony brings to the fore a dazzling array of rarely seen soloists. Summer was all crystalline wit, with Nolwenn Daniel, Mélanie Hurel and Alessio Carbone; Autumn brought three ballerinas of ravishing style and maturity, Laura Hecquet, Mathilde Froustey and Aurélia Bellet. The evening’s lyrical heart was Isabelle Ciaravola, radiant as the Angel; as she leaves, the Man briefly returns to his original pose, completing the introspective journey.

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