dance Caroline Mathilde,

Covent Garden Bland or brilliant? Sophie Constanti and Stephen Johnson compare notes

You can't blame the Royal Danish Ballet for thinking that Flemming Flindt's Caroline Mathilde might be of special interest to a British audience. First, there's its subject matter: the brief and tragic marriage of the 15-year-old English princess (whose name lends the work its title) to Denmark's madcap King Christian VII, two years her senior. Then there's the fact that Flindt's collaborator on this ballet, created in 1991, was the English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

And yet, despite its Anglo-Danish aspect, Caroline Mathilde doesn't come across as a particularly relevant or sensible choice of ballet for the company's first visit since 1968. Selecting a slice of royal history that offers more problems than possibilities for choreographic interpretation is Flindt's first mistake. And although he manages to establish the central roles of Christian VII, Caroline Mathilde and her lover, Struensee (the King's physician), there are too many intermediate and subsidiary characters in the frame. The result is a confusing, tiring production in which excessive designs (20 set changes, 250 costumes) cannot compensate for the absence of inventive choreography.

Lloyd Riggins is the young King given to frequent fits of derangement, during which he strikes up various "act mad" poses, linked by old-hat, modern ballet steps. Riggins milks these solos for what they're worth (not very much), and successfully conveys the King's cruelty towards Caroline Mathilde. But much of the time he lapses into bouts of silliness rather than insanity. As Caroline Mathilde, Rose Gad depicts the Queen's growing assertiveness as she begins a passionate affair with Struensee (Nikolaj Hubbe). But here, too, Flindt's choreography is ludicrously heavy-handed.

Long before the end, the ballet seems more a clash than a meeting of huge egos. Maxwell Davies's score gurgles and thumps along; Jens-Jacob Worsaae's multiple stage-sets move into place with much banging and wobbling; and Flindt adds his own undistinguished contribution. There's some good unison work from the corps, and the male principals (especially Hubbe) demonstrate the ease and lightness of jump which one associates with the Bournonville style. But none of this is enough to stop the evening from being one big yawn. SC

The young English princess Caroline Mathilde is married off to the mad epileptic King Christian VII of Denmark. Not surprisingly she takes a lover. The 18th-century Danish equivalent of the tabloids stir up resentment, and the military intervene, executing the lover and banishing the queen. It's a moving story, and a wonderful excuse for elaborate costumes and opulent scenery. The Royal Danish Ballet don't over-egg the pudding, though, and this, combined with high technical standards and imaginative choreography, makes it a joy to watch.

With this comes one of Peter Maxwell Davies's most uncomplicated and directly appealing scores; the mix of warm tonality and sour dissonance is familiar from the recent Proms commission The Beltane Fire, but the flavour is quite different, the range of colour and expression wider. Not all the music sounds as if it would be gripping in the concert hall, but the general level of imagination and invention in this two-hour score is remarkably high.

One of the most encouraging surprises was the musicality of Flindt's choreography - dance rhythms that matched or interestingly counterpointed the rhythms of the score, action that complemented the musical expression. Only in the first crowd scene was there any sense of friction: folksy dances on the stage, Mad Max parodies from the pit. I was a little disappointed at the end by the way that the music expressively drew back after giving the heart-strings a good tweak, but the action matched the music's simplicity. Who knows, in time it may turn out to be one of Caroline Mathilde's most effective touches. We should certainly be given the chance to find out - though matching the high musical standards of this performance won't be easy. SJ

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