First performed on 27th October 1958 at the Royal Opera House, Hans Werner Henze's "Ondine" has never commanded a regular place in the repertoire. This is a great pity, as the piece has all the ingredients that can contribute to a wonderful evening's entertainment.
For his story, Frederick Ashton turned to an 1811 French narrative by Motte Fouqué which attracted the attention of several Romantic choreographers, the most famous being Jules Perrot, who created a ballet on the theme in 1843 for Fanny Cerrito. Ashton's version contains a charming echo from Perrot's staging of the celebrated "shadow dance", but his ballet is a totally new conception saturated throughout by the presence of water.
The storyline is akin to Dvořák's "Rusalka" and has the same tragic end. The watersprite Ondine falls in love with Palemon, who in turn is in love with Berta. The latter's unrequited attitude diverts Palemon's attention towards Ondine, and the two embark on a series of exciting adventures that end with Palemon dying in Ondine's arms as both submerge beneath the waves.
This 2009 version by the Royal Ballet is both sumptuous and captivating. Miyako Yoshida dances the part of Ondine (created for Margot Fonteyn) with supreme dexterity and grace, while Edward Watson as her lover is no less impressive. Indeed, his death in Ondine's arms brought tears to my eyes. Ginesia Rosata and Ricardo Carvera in the minor roles contribute immensely with some high calibre performances that border on almost total perfection.
Ashton's gorgeous choreography and Lila de Nobili's shimmering costumes and scenery (both original conceptions) are splendidly complimented by John B Read's brilliant lighting effects and Christopher Carr's and Grant Coyle's imaginative staging.
The score by the 32 year-old Henze is luscious, magical and vibrantly descriptive, and the watery sound world is captured with compelling effect. Conductor Barry Wordsworth keeps a tight reign on proceedings, but his deep knowledge of the score allows the music to ebb and flow with effortless ease. A superb tribute to Ashton's consummate art in high-tech sound and vision which I recommend wholeheartedly.
Copyright © 2010, Gerald Fenech.