Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Paris Opéra Ballet: Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte

When someone mentions ‘Fairy Land’, what key words spring to mind?




Butterfly wings and twinkly lights.

Paris Opéra Ballet’s recent production of Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte, known in English as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, evoked all these  images during its recent run at Opéra Bastille. 

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing
By William Blake - Tate Britain Image, Public Domain, 
It was the Paris Opéra Ballet debut of this George Balanchine production and it showcased the depth of the company with a cast of both veteran and student dancers. 

Le Songe d’Une Nuit d’Éte is a story ballet of love, passion, confusion and trickery within the collision of two worlds: the mystical world of fairies and sprites ruled by Queen Titania and her consort Oberon, and the mortal world inhabited by young lovers Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. When Lysander and Hermia flee to the woods because they are forbidden to be together, they are pursued by Demetrius, who also loves Hermia and shows no interest in the advances of Helena, though she clearly loves him.

If that Shakespearean-Soap Opera wasn’t complicated enough, the mischievous sprite Puck, on a mission from Oberon to trick Titania into falling in love with a man with the head of an Ass, fumbles his potion/fairy dust and causes both Lysander and Demetrius to fall for Helena and to jilt Hermia. This prompts a duel among the men, a lot of hair-pulling among the women, and an exasperated dance- declaration from Puck: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Thankfully, ‘all’s well that ends well'. By the end of Act One, the lovers are back in the arms of their correct partners, Titania makes a sufficient (metaphorical) ass of herself with Bottom, the literal Ass, that Oberon lets her off the hook and makes up with her, and Puck and the Fairies rejoice!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is right up there with Romeo and Juliet for popularity and success with both play-going and ballet audiences. Both stories translate well to dance due to their action-packed plots and large casts of characters. The trade-off when transforming these texts into dance is the loss of the text itself and of that poetic, rhythmic language. At best, those iconic words are reimagined through creative, character-specific dance vocabulary that captures the essence of the text and highlights the character’s emotional state; at worst, the text is reinterpreted by dancers doing a lot of mime. Aye there's the rub.

Fortunately, in this ‘Dream, the mime was minimized and the characterization was solid, particularly among the Fairy trio of Puck, Oberon and Titania. I really enjoyed how Puck’s trickster persona was gleefully showcased through springy jumps and flawless, scurrying footwork. It was fun to see how Titania - at once elegant, proud, and refined  – go head over heels in her worship of Bottom and his adorable Ass head, while Oberon took it all in, a satisfied smirkiness in his steps.

The lovers were fine, but the only real distinguishing features between them were the colours of their costumes: Team Lysander/Hermia in blue, Team Demetrius/Helena in red. Balanchine’s choreography looked great on the quartet, but they needed that something extra to really ignite the characters and heighten their ridiculous conflict. Some of the best feisty-women quotes are in this scene:

Hermia:                How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.
Helena:                 O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school;
And though she be but little, she is fierce.

Here are two women ready to have it out with each other, but the dancers just didn’t bring enough attack. It was much too perfect, too restrained. I wanted more: more frustration, more passion, and more heart. How can you fight for love without heart?

The student corps in the fairy ensembles of Act One also danced well, if somewhat stiffly in their turns and ports de bras, but that’s nothing more performance experience can’t remedy. The large corps divertissements of Act Two matched every majestic blast of the horns in Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. They brought the smoothness, precision and fluidity I’ve come to expect from the POB and they were a joy to watch.

The sets and costumes were lovely and everything you’d expect to see in this most classic of classical fairylands: lots of shimmering pinks, soft greens, gossamer fairy wings and sparkling tiaras. The music was top-notch as always and the rich operatic vocals during Titania’s scenes with her fairy entourage added another element of whimsy to their magical world, where “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.”

While “the course of true love never did run smooth”, watching it all unravel on a beautiful stage, with stunning music and dance, was a delightful way to spend a mid-spring evening with one’s love.
Date night at the ballet!
Special thanks to our friend Crystal for babysitting our munchkin
and for taking this photo. 

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