The Royal Danish Ballet is currently on tour with their time travelling version of Napoli. The production borrows its fashionable costuming and manners from the social world of circa 1950 Capri. While it is a clever updating, the changes can also be incongruous, especially where the 50s era setting of Act I collides with the unaltered, traditional costuming for the dances in Act III. The biggest changes however come in the entirely new and delightful music compose by Louise Alenius for the Act II grotto scene. She was also a vocalist in these performances. Credit Artistic Director Niklolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund for their imaginative restaging and contemporary movement which brings a decided psychological edge to this Napoli. Hübbe’s imaginative reworking ultimately refines the storytelling as Gennaro and Teresina attempt to break free from the hyper-possessive Golfo and his underwater stronghold. It makes exceptional this portion of the ballet, which has often languished as a perfunctory diversion spiked with heavy-handed religious symbolism and melodrama. The new music and accompanying choreography make a truly fantastic center piece for the action, recalibrating and elevating the entire ballet.
With dramatic dappled lighting in deep, shadowy profile, and underwater projections that engulfed the entire back of the stage, Act II was both a powerful and visually appealing fantasy. What didn’t work was the casting on Sunday’s performance which pitted a too innocent and underplayed Gennaro (Alexander Staeger) against the overwhelming charisma and demon power of Jean Lucien Massot’s, Golfo. Staeger looked the part and danced with cool elegance but seemed motivated only by superficial emotion. Massot is such an imposing presence, any Gennaro has his work cut out for him as Teresina’s rescuer. And while they do overcome Golfo’s persistent hold over them, it is through the demands of the story and not the charisma of their dancing.
As soloists in the world of the Naiads, Lena-Maria Gruber and Alba Nadal were exceptional. Massot’s partnering with Amy Watson as Teresina was full of demonic impulse. Alenius in describing her work on the Act II music said she wanted something that would fit with the traditional music of the outer acts yet still stand out as contemporary work. Some of her recent music for film and dance has tended more in the direction of postmodern electronica. With a deft touch she brings back some of the standard Act I music for Teresina and Gennaro to conclude their pas de deux. The music begins from nothing with a solo harp.Those moments were unfortunately blighted in this performance by a noisy audience.
There were wonderful small touches throughout, like the cinematic opening, and the realistic sets (Maja Ravn), though they seemed to uncomfortably crowd the dancing in Act I. Over the course of the first act, day turns believably into night as we look out over a distant view of Vesuvius. In the last moments Gennaro and Teresina arrive on a Vespa as the entire village poses for an old fashioned photograph. Less successful were some of the elements of mime, which didn’t always make secure connections between the acting and the dancing. Least successful were the new characters in this staging. They were not always that clearly defined nor were their actions always understandable. The last act survives a very flat beginning with a mourning procession that finally gives way to the exhuberance of the solos and Tarantella that are the cornerstone of the ballet.
In Act III, the dancers from the solos and the Tarantella rub shoulders comfortably with the original characters from the opening of the ballet. And while it may be playing fast and loose with August Bournonville’s original (1842) story it seemed mostly a natural juxtaposition. Charles Andersen and Jón Axel Fransson were terrific in their solo variations covering the width of the stage with ease in their travelling movements while making it look cool and easy. The greatest delight was Alexandra Lo Sardo, who, with her solo and a reprise using a red shawl, did more to enliven the Bournonville aesthetic than any single dancer. The placement of her head in her turns and jumps was a revelation and made you believe in the subtle beauties and mannerisms of Bournonville style.
The Tarantella, with its quirky tune, tambourines and hand clapping was, as always, a delight. It’s the best onstage party in all of ballet. Graham Bond conducted the members of the Pacific Symphony in an exceptional performance. Special mention also goes to violinist Lars Bjørnkjær for his exceptional solo playing in both the first and second acts. The atmospheric lighting, especially magical in the grotto scene, was by Mikki Kunttu. The mostly full house showed its appreciation with ready, sustained applause.
(Thanks to principal dancer Alban Lendorf for his help identifying the dancers and to Louise Alenius for speaking with me about her new music for Napoli. You can find out more about her at http://louisealenius.com/)