Review: Royal Ballet in Asphodel Meadows/Enigma Variations/Gloria at Royal Opera House

Performance: 19, 23, 24, 29, 30 November
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 25 November 2011

Royal Ballet 'Asphodel Meadows' Marianela Nunez & Rupert Pennefather.
Photo: ROH, Johan Persson

There is a Downton Abbey appeal in the juxtaposition of Enigma Variations and Gloria as the final two-thirds of this mixed bill: the former a rich, meandering afternoon in a well-populated country house bathed in the late Victorian/ early Edwardian age of innocence; the latter an agonising vision of the barbarism of the Great War that changed life forever. I don’t know if these ballets have been paired before, but they fit together very powerfully and it requires little imagination to see the young men whose boisterous play was so memorably described by Elgar in his Enigma Variations as the same young men, a decade or so later, crawling and jumping from the trenches, to their certain deaths.

These works are amongst many often described as masterpieces by the two greatest British choreographers of the twentieth century: Frederick Ashton (who choreographed Enigma Variations in 1968) and Kenneth MacMillan (who made Gloria in 1980). In London, just this autumn, we have seen a half-dozen other works from their combined repertoires that could also be described as masterpieces and there are many more besides. At 25, Liam Scarlett has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as these giants of the choreographic profession but his Asphodel Meadows, an abstract full-ensemble work, sits more than comfortably in introducing this evening of British ballet at its best. Scarlett won last year’s National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography for Asphodel Meadows and it is no less impressive on this return. His choreography is nailed on to every nuance in the music of the two pianos in Poulenc’s Concerto in D Minor, with stuttering steps, raised arms and spinning bodies flowing in perfect synchronicity with the movement of every piano key. Three couples take it turns to lead, amongst whom Steven McRae and Yuhui Choe were especially impressive in the quicksilver pace of the final section.

I was moved by several aspects of Enigma Variations, most notably the gentleness of the famous Nimrod variation, which was performed with touching, and noble, simplicity by Bennet Gartside (as Elgar’s friend, A.J.Jaeger), with excellent support from Christina Arestis (Elgar’s wife) and Christopher Saunders as Elgar himself. Other Royal Ballet stalwarts who portrayed their characters well were Francesca Filpi as Winifred Norbury (whose ‘gracious personality is sedately shown’); Ricardo Cervera as the ‘outspoken and brusque’ Troyte; and Laura McCulloch as the ethereal and mysterious **** (the asterisks taking the place of a name of a lady ‘who was, at the time of composition, on a sea voyage’). However, other characters flit through the piece without conveying much of Elgar’s picture of the friends he described within the music. While the staging and designs (timelessly crafted by the late *) will always evoke the emotions of the period, some of these characterisations were lagging behind.

Elgar was the filling in a Poulenc sandwich since MacMillan made Gloria to Poulenc’s setting of the Catholic Gloria in Excelsis Deo, composed in 1960/1 (almost 30 years after the Double Piano Concerto). The Poulenc score for orchestra, chorus and solo soprano (Anna Devin) and MacMillan’s choreography is a sublime marriage that creates a chilling and emotional atmosphere, harnessed here to the expert sensitivity of lead performances by Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson. Although the overall feeling was slightly marred by some jarring moments in the background, it is a ballet that will always have the most dramatic impact. Watson’s final feet-first leap into the trench, while staring accusingly at the audience – on the day that four dead soldiers returned from Afghanistan – reminds us all about the ongoing robbery of young lives through war.

In rep until 30 November

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