Tuesday 13 January 2015

Dazzling woods, stagnant lake

Here's what I want: to persuade as many of you as are interested that the new, Disney-backed film of Sondheim's Into the Woods is infinitely better than any of the lukewarm or downright vindictive reviews I've read of it would lead us to believe, and to urge you to go and see it. Derek Deane's assisted Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake for English National Ballet at the London Coliseum needs no such special pleading, but much as I enjoyed catching the first night as the guest of The Arts Desk's excellent chief ballet critic Hanna Weibye - who raved here - I have more than a few reservations about both the nature of the tradition and even the performance of prima ballerina Alina Cojocaru, my favourite Aurora but not on this evidence the greatest Odette. I know, I know, ENB is so lucky to have her, above all dancing with Ivan 'the Beautiful' Vasiliev (only picture of him below among the selection offered by  ASH for ENB), and in the past I've found her dancing peerless, but this was odd from where I sat in a good seat towards the back of the stalls.

Why? Because I couldn't see any facial expression. It was as if she'd decided Odette has been turned into a kind of mechanical doll by Rotbart (vigorously etched by James Streeter, but our villain has nothing to do other than flap his rather splendid wings). Maybe that's one way of interpreting her, but then what about the poetry of the budding love between Prince Siegfried and the swan-into-forlorn maiden (or male swan, in Matthew Bourne's heartbreaking reinvention, which would have so moved Tchaikovsky)? As Hanna remarked, Cojocaru only let her face light up once, as the Prince pledged true love towards the end of that crucial second act.

My other problem is that I'm perhaps too fixated on a tall Odette - perhaps not an option for the small but perfectly formed Vasiliev. Still, you need to know who the Swan Queen is the minute she emerges from the gaggle. I'll never forget Svetlana Zakharova's infinite, and infinitely expressive arms at the Mariinsky. Cojocaru simply doesn't stand out from the pack, not to the non-connoisseur of dance at any rate.

Cojocaru was, though, superlative as black swan Odile (apart from the dull Drigo-arranged variation where her execution made one fear for the famous multiple fouettés to come, though as it turned out there was no need to worry). Here I could read the switch between smiles and mock-sadness towards Siegfried and craftiness towards dad Rotbart's implausible egging on (and why on earth would a court tolerate those freak-henchmen of his? I know it's not meant to be realistic, but still...)

On the other hand, I couldn't take my eyes off Vasiliev. Not just because he is indeed so beautiful - part of a trio in my books that also includes Ivan Putrov and Roberto Bolle - but also because the slightest tilt of his body suggested his pain and boredom at court, his anguish in the later stages. The trouble is that apart from the leapy-leapy in the 'Black Swan' Pas de deux, Petipa and Ivanov's Prince is a mere support act. A long way indeed from the Spartacus with which Vasiliev burst upon the London scene.

I thought the corps excellent, and the four cygnets mesmerising in their leg-work; it took Hanna to explain to me how certain angles would be more perfect from the Russians, but she was impressed too.

The real poetry comes from all those waving arms, that sea of bluish-white which for me is the real treat of an old-style Swan Lake. Otherwise, Matthew Bourne's storytelling is superior as a reflection of the music at every point, especially in Act Four, so limp here.

Thankfully ENB didn't take over wholesale the Drigo-butchered score which goes with the rehabilitation of 1895: gone were those horrid Tchaikovsky piano-piece arrangements which are so alien to the world of the composer's through-composed final act. Still, the Pas de deux pretext for a borrowing from the otherwise-cut Pas de six of Act 3 does nothing for the dancers and holds up the action just as badly as Drigo's number. The score was well enough conducted by Gavin Sutherland, but clearly hampered by ridiculously slow tempi for nearly all of Odette's music (at Cojocaru's demand? I can't tell).Star for me was an oboe hero of mine, Gareth Hulse. Can't quite make out why the London Sinfonietta's top man has ended up here, but it's a quality band if a bit thin on the violins.

No such extreme musical surgery was applied to Sondheim's masterpiece of music-theatre Into the Woods - now, for me absolutely the tops of all his work for sheer integrated, clockwork perfection - in its fortunately not too Disneyfied version by Rob Marshall. Some songs are cut, though I didn't miss any except the meaningful reprise, with a very different text, of the princes' 'Agony'. Thanks to certain insistences and the guiding presence of original 'book' writer James Lapine, kids may well be disconcerted by the especially dark turn the counterpoint of stories takes in the second half: no fairy-tale happy-ever-afters here. And though I loathed in principle the idea of Sondheim's having caved in to let Rapunzel survive and not bereave the Witch too severely, in practice her riding off with her prince was probably an OK decision; there's enough death and misery around that part of the drama as it is.

None of the stage-show's sharpness has been lost. Indeed, its brilliant first quarter of an hour is paralleled by superlative filmic cross-cutting between the characters. I didn't know the names of about half the members of the great ensemble* but I was convinced by them all.

Well, not perhaps at every point by James Corden's Baker, but he does cry convincingly and he's generally simpatico. It was going to take a lot to convince me that this Baker's Wife could match up to Imelda Staunton (in Richard Jones's original London production - revisited the soundtrack over Christmas, and it's one of the best ever) and Jenna Russell at Regent's Park, but Emily Blunt is so winningly lovely and mobile of expression, and her singing is fine. As is everyone else's, though I wonder if there was a bit of help for Daniel Huttlestone as cheeky dimwit Jack in his number 'There Are Giants In The Sky', which sounded almost too good to be true for a kid.

No doubt about it, Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood is a total star. Good lord, is that Annette Crosbie in about 40 seconds of Grandma time? Not to mention Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father and Frances de la Tour revving her contralto register as the Giantess - luxury indeed. Jonny Depp is as surprisingly good smarming up the Wolf in 'Hello, Little Girl' as he was in his off kilter Sweeney Todd (Sondheim's favourite film adaptation until now: does this take pride of place, I wonder?)

All the acerbity of the lyrics bites through, the execution of the G&S-in-black patter song 'Your Fault' is astounding and this time I bought into the possibly oversentimental music of 'No One Is Alone' - well I remember Richard Jones telling me he thought that was a disappointing lie - because the words keep it sharp. So did the fact that we were watching it with a goddaughter who'd still been in her early teens when her mum died. 'People sometimes leave you/Halfway through the woods' is a line that always gets to me.

Perhaps I'd have liked a more active segue into the return of the opening music at the end - it's used to back some of the credits - but that's my only major criticism. Jonathan Tunick is on hand, as ever, to make sure the larger-scale film orchestrations really work (it sounded good, if as ever a bit overamplified, in the Vue Cinema on Lower Regent Street). The woods look sinister-beautiful - do I see my beloved Frithsden beeches? Must check - and the film medium fully exploits the special-effects potential of exploding beans, beanstalk, whirlwind witch, etc.

So what, finally, of Meryl Streep as the Witch, referencing her age reversal in Death Becomes Her halfway through? Sensational. '[The] Last Midnight' rises dizzyingly to its 11 o'clock number status, a sinister Ravelian waltz to set aside the 3/4s of A Little Night Music, and leaves us gasping for breath. It also, incidentally, has some of the best-set lyrics: 'You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice. I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right'. So here's one musical they got as right as the cinema ever can, and if you say 'I wasn't going to go but now I shall', then my job's well done.

*Not quite as starry as the cast of the second read-through back in 1995, when Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson were interested. Sondheim lists the names in his second volume of complete lyrics and observations, Look, I Made a Hat: Robin Williams (the Baker), Goldie Hawn (the Wife), Cher (the Witch), Carrie Fisher (Ugly Sister Lucinda), Bebe Neuwirth (Ugly Sister Florinda), Moira Kelly (Cinderella), Kyle McLachlan (Cinderella's Prince), Brendan Fraser (Rapunzel's Prince), Elijah Wood (Jack), Roseanne Barr (Jack's Mother), Danny DeVito (the Giant) and Steve Martin (the Wolf). 

Why did it come to nothing? According to Sondheim, 'because of one of those periodic shake-ups where a new platoon of executives replaces the old one, eager to throw out all projects begun before their arrival in order to demonstrate the freshness of their re-thinking'. Familiar story in all walks of life, alas.

Anyway, let's celebrate that it DID get made nearly 20 years later, and with more of the original material. I can't imagine the opening sequence being bettered.


wanderer said...

Saddled with an aversion to Disney Perfection and Endless Hollywood Stars (exceptions apply) and being thoroughly over Jonny Depp (peaked early in Dead Man for me) not to mention finding Meryl Streep increasingly being Meryl Streep being clever and having been tickled to bits with Into The Woods at Lindbury some years ago and overcome by the sheer energy of youth and joy of performance and its immediacy, I wasn't going to go but now I might, maybe.

David said...

wanderer: a) Disney gives free rein to the Dark Side, b) I didn't know who half the cast were, and as you see it's not nearly as starry as the readthrough group of 1995, c) Jonny Depp is onscreen for less than 10 minutes, and does his song as well as he does Sweeney Todd, d) Meryl, who's had too much stick just for being a great actress with a sense of humour, can sing, and not embarrassingly as in the horrid Mamma Mia, e) it does what a film does at its best and makes you forget the different world of the staging, and f) the Red Riding Hood and the Jack are both kids rather than Infant Phenomenon drama-school graduates. Just go.

But heck, didn't I say most of that up top? So maybe there's no convincing some people.

David Damant said...

Wanderer - you get the Damant Prize for that sentence. How it builds up clause by clause until the punch is delivered in the principal clause, preceded correctly by the only comma.

Magnificent. Rather like Handel's Zadok the Priest

As for the "maybe" it detracts from the punch, but legitimately so. It undermines the whole argument - or places the two possibilities in parallel. One is left reflecting

David said...

Literary, yes, much more so than my list, though possibly at the expense of generosity re my special pleading...

Gavin Plumley said...

Interesting to read your thoughts on Cojacaru... a wonderful dancer, but after the flush of appealing girlish youth when she first danced Giselle and Aurora at the ROH, I grew bored, often finding her cold and unyiedling (the glories of her dancing aside). My favourite Aurora is still Viviana Durante. Nobody 'got' the difference between the giggly entrance Allegro giusto and the Rose Adagio better than her. Marianela Nuñez is my go-to Odette/Odile.

David said...

Gavin, where have you been all these months? I didn't twig for quite some time that you'd stopped writing your blog, and we haven't coincided.

Anyway, delighted to see you here and, yes, Cojocaru struck me as cold. I like Nunez very, very much but not seen her in Swan Lake - indeed, the Mariinsky in the 1990s was the last time I saw a 'trad' version and I can't imagine Zakharova being rivalled. Except by Lopatkina. Nunez isn't tall either, though, is she? It's a challenge if not. I also saw some archive film of Mrs Shchedrin, Maya Plisetskaya, as Odile: incredible.

Isn't Durante on the Bjornson-designed Sleeping Beauty which I seem to remember you loved as much as I did?

Anonymous said...

David, I have just left a comment on your earlier post, Drag as high art. Sorry to pull up a post that's almost a month old, but it still seems most appropriate submitted there. And I needed the preparation time, as you'll understand, when you read my love note!

Now for a word about your review of Swan Lake. It must be the most famous, even most popular, ballet in the world; and its music is special to me as evocative of early exposure to the arts. In high school, a teacher I admired, partly because she represented herself as a cultured person, mentioned one day that Swan Lake was the most beautiful ballet she had ever seen. I pulled out a record my parents had of musical highlights and from that day listened to it as often as I could, for a long time before actually seeing the ballet danced. The music became part of a combined sense memory, along with the novel I was reading when I started, and the scent I began wearing around that time. Any one of them still recalls the other components, and the period in my life, in general. I don't tire of the subject of Swan Lake and so am glad and interested to read your impressions here, especially because you are familiar enough with both the music and dance to analyze and compare. By the way, your remark about wanting a tall Odette and the possible issue of her being too much for a small Vasiliev reminds me of Tom Courtenay's line in The Dresser, "He wants a *light* Cordelia!"

I'm mostly writing to ask your opinion. I never saw the film of Black Swan, having been warned off it as too dark. It has even been described as a psychological horror film. Have you seen it, and would you recommend it, as having very much to do with the ballet and offering any insight into the music and dance? -- Elizabeth

David said...

I'm absolutely delighted that you responded as you did to RuPaul's Drag Race, Elizabeth, and expressed its essence so beautifully - I've duly replied with gratitude back there.

Swan Lake was the first 'classical' LP I was ever given, aged 7 - Music for Pleasure, Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by Joseph Levine, an unusual selection in parts. Since then I've come to love Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker more as scores, but this one has perhaps the most raw power.

I've been rather timid of going to see Black Swan or renting it, because of the putative violence, though I remain curious: it does seem to have something to say about the schizoid Odette/Odile temperament(s). But your absolute first stop on DVD must be the Matthew Bourne production with the male swans, of which I never tire. Get the first-time-round version with Adam Cooper and Scott Ambler, if you can. I keep saying that Tchaikovsky would have been absolutely amazed and delighted to see his great Act 2 Pas d'action danced with such poetry and tenderness by two men.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Among many things I enjoyed about this post was the juxtaposition of what might be perceived in some quarters as "high" v. "low" art, demonstrating that, in the hands of the right artists, there is at best a very porous divide. Whether I can persuade the Edu-Mate to go remains to be seen, but you've made a wholly convincing case, and I want to see it. Swan Lake provides another example, one of many, in which your recommendations have served me well: in that case, the Jarvi CD, which I snapped up, as I did Jarvi’s Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky really was a master, wasn't he? As is Sondheim.

David said...

Absolutely, Sue, and the more time passes, the more I fancy Tchaik was up there with Mozart. And of course the situation is analogous with Sondheim in that before Swan Lake (and Delibes' Coppelia and Sylvia) ballet scores were pretty low art in the 19th century at least, and Tchaikovsky changed all that just as Sondheim upped the ante with musicals that didn't just have roles for opera singers but either verged on the operatic (Sweeney Todd) or did such ingenious things with a score that one can only call it highest music theatre. Maybe I go a bit far, but Into the Woods is almost as good as Turn of the Screw for tight musical organisation and cross-referencing (ie the ubiquity and transformations of the 'five beans' theme).

Susan Scheid said...

David: Yes, good point about the change in how ballet has been perceived over time.

David said...

So much ballet choreography strikes me as super tacky, or else more gymnastics than art. The scores started to become top-quality with the arrival of Delibes' Coppelia (some make a case for Adam's Giselle, but Jurowski came a bit of a cropper on that, and then you have to go back to Rameau). But having had my Coppelia craze indulged on Building a Library some years back, I found it's now hard to plead the case of 'ballet music' on that eminent programme.

Of course Rodgers and Hammerstein made significant a big ballet in a musical, from Oklahoma! onwards. Just like the Paris Opera.

One last thought: I'm working on a note for Schnittke's Epilogue to his Peer Gynt ballet music, and realized how I HAVE to hear that full score. Choreography John Neumeier had remarkable vision when it came to commissioning works like that, or using great masterpieces. It doesn't often work, for me, but I appreciate the enterprise.

David Damant said...

I remember one of my colleagues in the City - he and his wife were madly keen ballet lovere, going to more than one performance if there was a different performer in a key role - saying that Margot Fonteyn as Odette was absolutely different as Odile, and that other dancers in the roles just did not cut the mustard (though as this was some time ago he probably did not use that phrase]

David said...

Two points, David - one, that ballet lovers in their seeking out the different dancers on different nights are like voice queens who care more about the performer than the work (just saying) and the other, that a poetic Odette might not always be a compelling Odile (and vice versa, as with Cojocaru - at least as my relatively untutored eye could tell). Adam Cooper was simply magnificent as both - such a sexy, compelling and - given the context - rather upsetting Black Swan in leather.

David Damant said...

I would argue that the performer who can be different as Odette and Odile IS a central part of the performance. And this can apply generally to different artists in opera also, thus justifying visits to varying artists. I know that so many people go to the ballet or opera to enjoy themselves and not to open their hearts to the drama ( in which case your criticism is very valid). Cries of "Bravo" after the King's aria just before the Grand Inquisitor comes in ( Don Carlo) were terrible.

David said...

Agreed, a great performer is integral to the experience. It just amazes me that these ballet nuts see very often an ENTIRE RUN in their worship of the stars. You'd think you'd choose the couple who you know will never let you down.

You've used the King Philip instance many times before. But there are plenty of occasions where I reckon applause where an aria comes to a full stop is absolutely fair game. Again, it's about the balance the composer establishes between creating a world and serving the singer.

Anyway, it's nothing like the endless clapping in the movements and/or variations of a Pas de deux...so delicious to hear the sequence in harmonic relations as the composer intended.