A cottage door opens and a prettily aproned ballerina peeps out, hoping for a morning tryst with her forbidden love. It all could so easily end in tears – Giselle wrings madness and death from a similar set-up – but La Fille mal Gardée is the happiest ballet in the repertoire, and it’s back at the Royal Opera House.
Frederick Ashton’s 1960 version of Jean Dauberval’s revolutionary 1789 original is a simple tale of a country girl who prefers a lusty local farmer to the landed halfwit her mama has in mind. The Royal Ballet’s latest revival opened with Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as her adoring swain.
John Lanchbery’s patchwork of Herold, Donizetti, Haydn, Hertel and Rossini was cheerfully played, although supplementing the storm from La Cenerentola with extraneous thunder effects is a lousy idea – isn’t that what the Rossini was doing?
Casting was good but not perfect. Jonathan Howells joined the dots neatly enough but his account of the idiot Alain is coarse-grained and lacks the painful sweetness that others find in the role created by Alexander Grant (to whom this run of Fille is dedicated).
Christopher Saunders’s stolid Farmer Thomas was no match for William Tuckett’s thoroughly rounded comic turn as the greedy but golden-hearted widow Simone. The resounding smack on her son-in-law’s bottom in the reconciliation scene gave vicarious pleasure to an appreciative crowd.
Carlos Acosta had received an equally warm hand on his entrance from Friday’s capacity audience. The Cuban favourite partnered impeccably and played the homespun heart-throb with unaffected good humour but, at 38, his bravura solos miss some of the juicy exuberance that defines Ashton’s hero.
Anyone pining for full-on split jumps in the “bottle dance” should either check out Acosta’s younger self on the Opus Arte DVD or grab a ticket for Steven McRae’s performances on May 11 and 16 (the latter also in cinemas via live relay).
Lise isn’t everybody’s role (Fonteyn, Bussell, Guillem and Rojo are among the many stars who never danced it) but it is ideal for Nuñez, who is at her radiant best in romantic comedy. Her fleet, frisky feet make light of the filigree pointework, her jump has bliss-driven buoyancy and every pirouette is a physical expression of the character’s sunlit self-confidence – most especially in the cornfield ensemble, where she becomes the nerveless hub of a happy human maypole while her audience coos with pleasure.