, November 2010
Ondine received its world premiere by the Royal Ballet in October 1958. Choreographer Frederick Ashton conceived the story about a human’s inconstant love for a water sprite primarily as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. After selecting Hans Werner Henze as composer, Ashton envisioned Ondine to have a romantic ambience and watery feel with a contemporary score. Henze’s music is early 20th-century Middle European postromantic in style, and even hearkens back to the world of Mendelssohn. Almost inevitably with the images evoked by the sea and a water sprite, there are some vaguely Impressionistic elements, but nothing that is remotely reminiscent of Debussy and La Mer. Although there are plenty of gentle dissonances, the easily accessible, even cinematic music is not particularly forbidding, but you will not hear any hummable melodies in a Tchaikovskian sense, either. Ondine frequently sounds like a relentlessly minor-key Sacre du printemps on Valium. In other words, it lacks the shock value and dramatic impact of Le Sacre du printemps even when the drums are pounding. The orchestration is excellent and usually interesting (for example, an energetic, almost Leonard Bernstein-like piano divertissement and a duet for harp and celesta). No doubt Ondine is a major full-length ballet that conjures up its own sound world that is at times brilliant but remains emotionally chilly given the romantic subject matter and stage action.
Frederick Ashton’s choreography is designed to evoke images of the sea: “I wanted the movement to be fluid like the rhythm of the sea rather than set ballet steps. In general, all the choreography has been inspired by the sea. I spent hours watching water move and have tried to give the choreography the surge and swell of waves.” The interaction of the dancers and the sets in act II with painted scrims reproducing the effect of a ship riding on waves climaxed by the concluding storm scene is truly amazing and perhaps unprecedented. Unfortunately, Henze’s music does not quite match the stage action in the storm sequence.
Miyako Yoshida may not be Margot Fonteyn but her dancing is fluid and graceful, and she evolves effectively into a tragic figure. Edward Watson appears to be the Royal Ballet’s go-to guy in modern dramatic ballets. As in Mayerling, his acting is the primary focus. His dancing is more lyrical than physical here. Yoshida and Watson generate considerable chemistry onstage. Their pas de deux in acts I and III are very affecting. Ricardo Cervera is smoothly athletic but not particularly menacing as Tirrenio. Barry Wordsorth conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra effectively.
The Blu-ray visual images of the spectacular stage action play a crucial role in this production. In the accompanying Henze interview, the aging composer reveals himself to be a charming and humble man as he discusses the genesis of Ondine in his home in Italy. Ondine is highly recommended for anyone interested in moving outside of the mainstream of classical ballet. For those of you with little or no interest in dancing, Ondine is available in a complete Deutsche Grammophon recording played by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen.