Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton was born in September
1904, so it was always likely that the Royal Ballet – of
which he was Director for most of the 1960s – would take
the opportunity to celebrate his centenary with revivals
of some of his best works.
My colleague Ian Lace has already given a very warm welcome
to Opus Arte’s DVD of the 2005 revival of Ashton’s 1952
production of Delibes’s Sylvia
). Now this new release, from the same television/DVD
producers, is likely to offer just as much – if not more – pleasure
to admirers of both the choreographer and several of
the Royal Ballet’s most accomplished artistes.
The origins of the score are somewhat obscure. The earliest
music – dating from 1789 - was cobbled together by an
unknown hand from a variety of popular melodies. But
by 1828 it was considered sufficiently dated for Ferdinand
Hérold to be commissioned to rearrange and supplement
it, using not just his own material but also unauthorized
extracts from pieces by Donizetti, Rossini and others.
Hérold’s score held the field for less than 40 years, though,
before it in turn was considered so old-fashioned that
it was superseded by one penned by Peter Ludwig Hertel.
Thus, from the 1860s onwards, it was Hertel’s music – at
various times added to substantially by Drigo, Pugni,
Minkus and Delibes, not to mention Anton Rubinstein and
a certain Johann Armsheimer – that was associated with
the La fille mal gardée
Had Ashton had a grander conception for his planned 1960 Covent
Garden production, he might well have used the by now
traditional Hertel score. But instead he envisaged a
simple, pastoral, light-hearted and pastel-shaded interpretation
of the old story – Watteau rather than Winterhalter.
Thus, having retrieved Hérold’s long-neglected music
from the archives, he asked John Lanchbery to edit and
re-orchestrate it. [Ironically enough, a single bit of
Hertel did eventually find its way into the new version
and, as the theme of the famous clog dance, can be heard
in one of the ballet’s best loved episodes!]
La fille mal gardée
– yet another story of young lovers
thwarting an ambitious parent’s plan to marry off one
of them to a far wealthier suitor - is now considered
the quintessential Ashton ballet and is certainly the
best loved. The choreography’s apparent - but not actual!
- simplicity and its sheer joie de vivre
in perfect harmony with the undemanding light-hearted
story and the tuneful 1828 score to ensure that audiences
invariably leave the theatre with faces wreathed in smiles.
That would certainly have been so as patrons left the
Royal Opera House on 2 February 2005 – and thankfully
the BBC’s cameras were there to record the occasion.
While not having any great emotional depths to plumb in their
roles, attractive and charismatic soloists Marianela
Nuñez and Carlos Acosta are utterly convincing as youthful
lovers. She is an exceptionally pretty girl, whereas
he is the epitome of a virile and handsome young swain.
Moreover, unlike many ballet productions, this is one
case where the protagonists look genuinely and appropriately
young. In fact, Nuñez was, at the time, just 23 and the
Royal Ballet’s youngest Principal – though mere youth
was clearly no handicap as she received, that same year,
the Best Female Dancer accolade in the Critics’ Circle
National Dance Awards. Acosta, though actually nine years
older, makes an ideal visual match – as his many admirers
will certainly testify.
The pair are also very well matched as dancers and offer well-nigh
perfect interpretations and performances. Ashton’s choreography
may not offer too much in the way of flashy opportunities
to bring down the house, but it is sufficiently taxing
to require the dancers to demonstrate complete concentration
and immaculate technique. Both are in clear evidence
As Widow Simone, the domineering mother determined to engineer
an advantageous – if loveless – marriage for her daughter,
William Tuckett plays the role for laughs. In full pantomime
dame mode and equipped with a range of wonderfully exaggerated
facial expressions, he certainly succeeds. He can, though,
dance too – although I would have liked to have heard
clack-clack of his clogs more clearly over the orchestra,
so as to emphasize his skillful footwork in the famous
Jonathan Howells’s interpretation of Alain, Widow Simone’s
preferred rich-but-dim suitor for her daughter, is again
strong on comedy but he also conveys an air of pathos
that adds considerably to the role and was clearly appreciated
by the Covent Garden audience.
The production keeps the corps de ballet
busy portraying various types of cheerful, good natured
country folk. These are remarkably sophisticated rustics,
however – at least when it comes to their ability to
interpret Ashton’s intricate, fluid patterns on stage.
The maypole dance preceding the storm that brings the
first act to a close - itself a striking coup de théâtre
offers an excellent example of the company’s strength
in full ensemble, as does the exuberant finale to the
Meanwhile, conductor Anthony Twiner directs
an appropriately jaunty and light-hearted account of
the score and the Covent Garden orchestra responds with
The set is from designs by Osbert Lancaster
who was, at that time well-known as a professional cartoonist
for the Daily Express
. Its simple, cartoon-like
qualities and the exaggeratedly clichéd French peasant
costumes also fit the mood of this delightful production
perfectly and add measurably to its already considerable
charm and appeal.