No one does the 19th century classics better than the Royal Ballet. There is simply no other company in the world that has the historical knowledge, adequate finances and surfeit of talent necessary to do justice to these grandiose productions.
That is certainly true of the Royal's current production of "Sleeping Beauty," transmitted to theaters around the world as part of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema series. The costuming and sets are overwhelming in their richness, the mime (a dying art) understandable and nuanced and the technical ability of the dancers almost uniformly breathtaking, with an attention to detail, passed down through generations, that is unsurpassed.
The story is known well outside ballet circles, from the Disney version if nothing else. The evil Carabosse (Lauren McNally), miffed at not having been invited to a christening for Princess Aurora (Boston native Sarah Lamb), casts a curse that says the princess will die by pricking her finger on her 16th birthday. The spell is subsequently softened by the Lilac Fairy (Laura McCulloch), who instead puts the princess and the entire kingdom to sleep for 100 years, to be awakened only when Aurora is kissed by Prince Florimund (Steven McRae).
Originally revived in 2006, this production is a recreation of the 1946 version that reopened the Royal Opera House after it had served as a dance hall during World War II. The "reawakening" of the hall was meant to coincide with Aurora's reawakening.
Lamb and McRae, with their reed-thin physiques and strawberry blonde coloring were well-matched and, eventually, dynamic together. Lamb seemed nervous in the initial arabesque balances of the traditional Rose Adagio but was full steam ahead by the time of the swooping fish dives of the final grand pas de deux. Though her prince doesn't make his first entry until the ballet is half over, McRae was dynamic from his first appearance in Act II. His assured partnering and regal bearing are perfect for this role and he seemed to settle Lamb down after the excessive technical demands of her dominating role in Act I.
McCulloch has a heaviness to her step and a frozen expression of face that put me off, but her miming was pitch perfect and the weightiness may have been appropriate for her authoritative role. McNally was suitably evil and coarse, but it was the less principal roles that truly shone.
Elizabeth McGorian as the Queen, Gary Avis as the King and Thomas Whitehead as the simpering Cattalabutte, the master of ceremonies who sets everything wrong from the start, all made their virtually non-dancing roles compelling and convincing. And I couldn't take my eyes off Yuhui Choe — as a fairy early on and later, as the Bluebird, the only one of the Act III stream of fairytale characters otherwise unrelated to the ballet (Puss 'n Boots, Red Riding Hood) worth keeping. Her tiny, fluttering ankle beats reminded me of a hummingbird's wings.
All of this took place amidst the most sumptuous sets one could imagine, especially the serrated scrims of foliage that dropped down and moved around in the Act II forest scene, accented by smoke and eerie lighting.
All in all, you couldn't ask for more. In fact, modern audiences, with their shorter attention spans, might want a good deal less. With a prologue and three acts plus two intermissions and a nearly 3 1/2 hour run time, this much tradition can be a bit of a challenge. But if you want to know what ballet was like when it all began, there's no where better place to to look than at the Royal.
SLEEPING BEAUTY, Royal Ballet, part of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema series. Reviewed March 20; no additional screenings. For more information, go to www.roh.org.uk