, November 2010
Undine the water sprite, first named by the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, was the subject of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s story Undine, written nearly three centuries later. The idea of a character who must marry a mortal to gain a soul is rich in musical possibilities; Claude Debussy attempted to capture her elusive character in Book II of his Préludes (1912-1913), as did compatriots Maurice Ravel in Gaspard de la nuit (1908) and Cécile Chaminade in l’ondine (1900).The Romantics were similarly enchanted, with operas by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816) and Albert Lortzing (1845), not to mention Tchaikovsky’s Undina (1869). And then there’s one of my recent discoveries, the delightful Undine Sonata by Carl Reinecke.
Frederick Ashton’s Ondine was premiered at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1958, with Margot Fonteyn as the eponymous water sprite. In this 2009 revival, the role of Ondine is danced by Miyako Yoshida, who made such a powerful impression in Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker some years ago.
But does this Ondine live up to expectations? First impressions are all favourable; the orchestra is in fine form, the high-definition picture is razor sharp, and the sound—in PCM stereo at least—is natural and beautifully detailed. Lila de Nobili’s original designs are of the bare-bones variety and somewhat murky; that said, the dark backgrounds have a wonderful way of highlighting the elegant costumes. As for the principals, Genesia Rosato makes a fine, aristocratic-looking Berta, who also knows how to party with her guests. Meanwhile Edward Watson, who strikes a rather gaunt, Byronic pose as Palemon, brings a real sense of troubled introspection to his Act I solo (ch. 5). And now for a minor grumble; the editing here isn’t terribly intuitive, with some abrupt transitions, but that’s soon forgotten as Ondine emerges from behind a blue-bathed gauzy veil, accompanied by some lovely harp melodies.
Yoshida’s poise and presence are undiminished, her movements wonderfully fluid, although some may feel she over-emotes at times. Still, she is superb in her Shadow Dance (ch. 7), her en pointe as light and assured as ever. As for Henze’s disarmingly simple score, it’s beautifully played and balanced, adding its own skein of magic to the production. Speaking of which, the first pas de deux (ch. 9) is elegantly done, Yoshida’s grace and line just astonishing. Happily the spell isn’t prematurely ended by intrusive clapping, although there is some applause at the start of the Forest Transformation scene (ch. 12).
Visually, Ashton’s choreography has many striking touches; for instance, as Palemon tries to embrace Ondine she turns away, her arms moving like pale anemones in the gloom. Yoshida’s limpid loveliness has its counterpoint in the entry of Tirrenio, Lord of the Mediterranean Sea, danced with real panache by Richard Cervera. At this point one becomes aware that the darkened stage also acts like a filmic fade, characters melting into—and emerging out of—the blackness. It’s a deft piece of stage business, and it works remarkably well. And speaking of cinematic references, there’s more than a hint of Busby Berkeley in the ‘wedding-cake’ display of tritons and nymphs towards the end of ch. 14.
Henze’s score never succumbs to pastiche; even in the music of the final pas de deux of Act I (ch. 15) he finds tenderness and joy in music of great clarity and refinement. The three-dimensional recording certainly helps here, picking out the discreet harp swirls and exposed wind writing. Indeed, there’s as much to enchant the ear as there is to delight the eye, even though the Act I finale—with Tirrenio, the tritons and nymphs—is a touch too long.
The sunnier port scene at the start of Act II is animated by the good-natured antics of matelots, stevedores and their wily wenches; as for the set—essentially just rigging and cargo—it’s basic but evocative. The stage is illuminated even more by the arrival of Palemon and Ondine, the latter’s features alive with awe and excitement. It’s only when Yoshida’s not on stage that one realises how magnetic a dancer she really is, drawing the eye and focusing the narrative. And then there’s that remarkable scene on board (ch. 22), with passengers and sailors bending and bracing to the motion of the ship. Visually this works very well, Henze’s rocking accompaniment—complete with soft guitar—a discreet yet inspired piece of writing.
The poignant pas de trois—a reminder that this is a ménage a trois as well—is another triumph of understatement, subtly choreographed and acted, Yoshida’s mobile features a good barometer of the ballet’s changeable emotions. The video direction here is equally assured, the drama’s natural ebb and flow unimpeded by fussy angles or editing. As for the stormy Act II Finale it’s yet another visual and musical highpoint, the on-board terror and turmoil evoked in music of surprising energy and thrust. And, as always in the cumulative excitement of a live theatrical event, there’s a real buzz in the House in anticipation of Act III.
Set in Palemon’s gloomy castle—he and Berta have survived the shipwreck and are to be married—this Act builds on the musical and dramatic momentum of the last, especially in Edward Watson’s wild and impassioned response to the vision of Ondine (ch. 29). He really seizes the stage at this point, turbulent feelings channelled into some of the most virile dancing thus far. Yoshida is also excellent, a vision in every sense of the word, her aquatic movements both varied and finely calibrated. And for those who don’t know Henze’s score, like the ballet itself it seems to grow in strength and confidence, the shimmer of gongs and spray of harps neither hackneyed nor overdone. As for the action, no ballet is complete without its divertissement; here we have a heady mix of pas de trois, pas de six, a Boys’ Dance, and a set of Variations.
The ballet may have its longueurs—especially in the first Act—but composer and choreographer make amends with a brace of breathtaking dances in the final one; the ebullient Entrée (ch. 32) is accompanied by earthy brass and drums, the colourful pas de six (ch. 33) and ensuing numbers augmented by a lively piano part. It’s an ideal opportunity for the corps de ballet—and the band—to have some serious fun. And they do. There’s even a hint of jazzy high-jinks in some of these dances, proof that water music need not mean watered-down as well. As before, the simple, stylish costumes are a treat, the varied headgear adding shape and pattern to these ensemble pieces. The Variations are hugely entertaining as well, especially the whirligig of a solo in Variation 2 (ch.38). That certainly deserved its spontaneous round of applause.
The party mood evaporates with the return of the cool-green figure of Tirrenio (ch. 41), to whom Henze bequeaths some of his most austere and otherworldly music. It’s a mesmerising scene, the imaginative choreography especially thrilling. Cervera is a powerful presence here, upstaged only by the return of the sorrowful Yoshida. Gone is her girlish innocence and glee, her excited fibrillations supplanted a sad stoicism; Yoshida makes the transformation seem all the more poignant, her grace undimmed but her features set in a Noh-like mask of misery. It’s a compelling piece of theatre, and even as Palemon kisses her he knows he must die. As balletic apotheoses go, this may seem impossibly mawkish, but even the hardest heart would melt as the grieving Ondine bears Palemon’s body back to the deep. The audience, somewhat subdued so far, signals its approval with prolonged applause cheers and several curtain calls.
Apart from the ubiquitous Gallery, there’s an 11-minute interview with Hans Werner Henze, ensconced in his impressive villa near Rome. He’s unassuming and softly spoken, describing Ondine as a truly eclectic work, a fusion of his German-ness, Ashton’s Englishness and Italian artist Lila de Nobili’s passion for British culture. As artistic collaborations go, Ondine seems to have been trouble-free; there’s no doubting Henze’s admiration for Ashton, and he singles out the ‘unpretentious, friendly’ Fonteyn for special praise. Hard to believe, though, that they were concerned the music might be too demanding for audiences of the time. So, a pleasant—if not especially informative—snippet, but it’s worth watching nonetheless.
This is a wonderful DVD and a most desirable addition to any ballet collection. Opus Arte’s production values are top-notch—the pictures and sound are among the best I’ve encountered—and the liner-notes, by Ashton authority David Vaughan, are a model of their kind.