Review: Royal Ballet - Viscera/Afternoon of a Faun/Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux/Carmen - Royal Opera House

Performance: 26 Oct - 12 Nov 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 27 October 2015

Royal Ballet - 'Carmen'. Carlos Acosta as Don Jose, Marianela Nuñez as Carmen. ©ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 26 October

If you have ever been to a boxing bill where the undercard was considerably more exciting than the main attraction, then you might empathise with my feelings after this very mixed programme from the Royal Ballet. The evening’s equivalent of the world title contest turned out to be a heavyweight flop, whereas the gala fare padding in the middle was ballet as good as it gets.

Any new production of Carmen has to be something special, otherwise what’s the point? Timing is often all that matters and – in that respect alone – Carlos Acosta’s new production for the Royal Ballet has suffered the worst of fates, coming to a London stage so soon after revivals of Calixto Bieito’s acclaimed opera for ENO and Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man at Sadler’s Wells, not to mention Francesca Zambello’s production for The Royal Opera, which opened on this same stage, a week prior to this premiere. London has had a festival of Carmen in the last few months. And, in just about every sense, Acosta has fashioned one cigarette girl too many.

The point about these other productions – opera and dance (and here I include the Mats Ek version, which the late Ross Stretton brought into The Royal Ballet’s repertory) – is that each one has stamped something indelible and unique upon the magical music of Bizet and the story of the Sevillian gypsy girl and the men who fall under her spell. With this new Carmen, it feels as if Acosta and his team have thrown so many ideas into the pot that it comes out as a mushy stew of indeterminate origin. The flavour of Spain – even in a broader Hispanic context – is at best, vaguely detected. To be frank, it’s about as Spanish as an airport-bought Alicante mug that turns out to have been made in Hong Kong.

There is an opera chorus; a mezzo-soprano (Fiona Kimm, playing the fortune teller in the card scene); some dreadful faux-flamenco; a horned character (I think representing Fate) that seems to have wandered off the set from Martha Graham’s Errant in the Maze; and a mishmash of costumes and designs that give the events no kind of timeline. As the soldier, Don José, Acosta seems to have come from the Confederate Army in the American Civil War; but when the girls rip off their clothing (there’s quite a lot of that, from girls and guys) the black underwear they’re wearing might have been newly bought from Victoria’s Secret.

In terms of direction, the whole enterprise tries to be too sexy. Marianela Nuñez sparkles with sex appeal, whenever she dances as the black swan (and you can strike that reference and replace it with virtually any other role); but here she is channelling sexual attraction in every way – kittenish, coquettish, lustful, even some bondage is brought to bear on her escape from Don José in the prison (which, just to emphasise the man-eater tag, if we hadn’t already got it, takes place as if in a tiger’s cage).

Nuñez looks stunning, even in a dreadful wig, and she dances so beautifully, even in such unmemorable choreography, but the vital subtleties of Carmen’s self-preservation, ambition, fearlessness and caprice are here overlain with too much coarseness; one might even say, vulgarity. It is just not what, or who, Carmen should be.

And Acosta is just not Don José. He soars in any role that requires nobility and heroism (Spartacus, Romeo etc) but he doesn’t do jealousy, despair or victim with authenticity. It is casting against type and he must surely be better suited to the character of Escamillo, which he will also play in this run, alternating roles with Federico Bonelli. The latter was one of the few bright spots here, bringing panache and flair to Bizet’s toreador. His flashing solo was also a dance highlight of the hour long ballet.

Bizet’s music is the safety valve in any performance of Carmen and even though it has been ripped apart and sown back together differently in Martin Yates’ new orchestration, it serves the new ballet faithfully, if not authentically. Another plus point came in some aspects of the design and lighting combo (respectively Tim Hatley and Peter Mumford), which provided a few memorable visual landscapes, notably in the marvellous spectacle that occupied the final 30 seconds. The same is true of Acosta’s choreography, which provided interesting shapes for the whole ensemble but was gymnastic (and not in a good way) and sometimes derivative when focused on the centrepiece duets.

That this new production was so disappointing was ameliorated by a pair of welcome, aged American choreographic imports that filled the middle of this programme. Firstly, Vadim Muntagirov and Sarah Lamb gave a stupendous account of Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. This glorious, iconic work is a wonderful example (as is Bourne’s The Car Man) of how to take something inimitable (in this case Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune) and create an alternate vision that is respectful, innovative and a masterpiece in its own right. And then Steven McRae and Iana Salenko nailed the Tchaikovsky pas de deux with an understated, elegant, ever-smiling virtuosity.

The evening had opened with a second run for Liam Scarlett’s Viscera, which had been made for Miami Ballet in 2012 and received its Royal Ballet premiere, later that year. Lowell Liebermann’s Piano Concerto No.1 provides an excellent inspiration for Scarlett’s exercise in developing fast, intricate footwork and ever-changing patterns for a large group of dancers. Although this is Scarlett’s home company, the ballet’s origins in America (and commissioned by former New York City Ballet star, Edward Villella) and the use of an American composer’s piano music places Viscera firmly into the lineage of abstract, fast-paced ballets by Balanchine and early, non-narrative work by Christopher Wheeldon.

It’s a complete piece full of fascinating imagery suggesting any number of individual ideas about what lies within. At one point, a trio of girls took my fancy as rippling swirls of water, eddying in a pond. To provoke sublime thoughts of a warm afternoon observing a pond, on a cold October night in the middle of drizzly London, is quite a feat.

Laura Morera was outstanding as the lead ballerina, decisively fluid and unfailingly connected to the music; she was spiky and angular, smooth and fluent. Morera seems to have been part of The Royal Ballet for as long as I can remember and always consistently delivers performances that match the highest level of expectation. Leticia Stock also made a notable impression in the pas de deux, ably partnered by the ever-dependable Nehemiah Kish.

The programme feature on the new Carmen predicts that “this may go down as the sexiest Carmen in the history of ballet”. And it seems impossible for any description of the new ballet not to include some steamy, sexy or similar tag. But, it tries so hard that it trips over into sleazy. There is more palpable sexual chemistry in any ten seconds of the action in Jean Rosenthal’s wind-blown studio/tent for Afternoon of a Faun than there is in the whole of this lacklustre Carmen.

Continues in rep: 28, 31 October, 2, 6, 9, 12 November 2015

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Main photo: Carlos Acosta as Don Jose, Marianela Nuñez as Carmen. ©ROH, by Tristram Kenton

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