Don Quixote, Royal Opera House, London – review

One might have supposed that unhappy experience had instilled a certain caution in the Royal Ballet with regard to Don Quixote. The company acquired – and swiftly enough despatched – two previous versions of Petipa’s jolly extravaganza: one, 20 years ago, of earnest tedium, the other, seemingly located in a wintry Frinton and, in Martha Graham’s phrase, “doom-eager”, appeared briefly in 2001 during the year when Ross Stretton directed the company.

Now, as we saw on Monday night, the company has gained a staging from Carlos Acosta, designed by Tim Hatley, its venerable Minkus-with-additions score arranged and re-orchestrated by Martin Yates. And have the clouds that brooded over the Royal Ballet’s previous efforts dispersed? Alas, for my money, this attempt is an extremely vivacious, curious-to-look-at and disappointing-to-hear affair, and the clouds feature largely on Hatley’s back-cloth of the skies over Barcelona. There is no pleasure in reporting unfavourably on a production that has engaged the best efforts of a ballet troupe, and that seeks – for un-guessable reasons – to adapt this merriest example of Russian 19th-century ballet for a modern British public.

The premise of the event is wrong-headed. The traditional presentations in which audiences rejoice with the Mariinsky and Bolshoi troupes spring from a long Russian history (both musical and balletic) of fascination with Spain. First made by Petipa, who knew Spain, for the Bolshoi ballet as vivid drama, then given a more “classical” manner for St Petersburg, Don Quixote has survived as a display of joyous Hispanic temperament and classical dance since 1869. Today’s Russian versions show their age, but they are sanctified by their decorative, musical and dance history. They understand a 19th-century vision.

This earnest Royal Ballet account offers settings where Barcelona is a depressing collection of buildings which make curious incursions on to the stage, too many windmills for comfort, and a vision scene dominated by lurid and massive red flowers. The score has been edited, re-orchestrated and, to my ears, has lost much of its savour, while the all-too-vivacious cast is called upon to shout and make merry cries to cover some of the flimsier moments in the drama. The dancers, led with unfailing bravura by Marianela Núñez and Carlos Acosta, carry on with teeth-gritted eagerness, but cannot overcome the staging’s lack of heart, of reason for being there, and their own unfamiliarity with its style. We are faced, alas, with another betrayal of this joyous old ballet.

(for the dancers)

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