The season opened with Viviana Durante, one of the company's most intelligent actresses. Unfortunately she is also one of the company's most sexy and assured performers: there were glimpses of Odile's knowing virtuosity and of Manon's love of finery which weren't quite in tune with the tentative grace expected from Cinderella. While she underplayed the contrast between the downtrodden drudge and the dazzling debutante, she captivated the audience as easily as she dominated the ballroom.
The curtain rose for Act II with a ripple of happy applause for David Walker's sumptuous design, but the applause was louder still for the incorrigible scene- stealer Tetsuya Kumakawa as the jester, fast-forwarding multiple pirouettes and provoking gasps with a sequence of split and beaten jumps. This firework display heralds the entrance of Bruce Sansom, who bursts on to the stage with a juicy line-up of four lords-a-leaping. Sansom combines strong partnering with a principal-boy prettiness. Here was a man you would cut off your big toe for - and the ugly sisters were falling over themselves to prove it. Ageing ballet-goers are still in mourning for the lost laughs of the original sisters (Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton), and it does seem that over the years that the comic byplay of the two men en travesti has degenerated into slapstick. To succeed as comedy a drag act needs to be a close parody of feminine mannerisms - not a heavy-handed pastiche of a pantomime dame. Oliver Symons and Derek Rencher are a particularly ponderous pair who hit each other and fall over with unrelieved buffoonery. David Bintley and Stephen Wicks are a more successful team. Bintley's excessive shyness occasionally threatens to drag down the comedy but his grotesque sibling Wicks is on hand to nip such sentimental twaddle in the bud, twisting his Mr Punch features into a series of impossibly exaggerated grimaces in a performance that brought to mind the grand old days of John Cleese in a dress.
The Bolshoi guest Nina Ananiashvili danced the role of his unfortunate half- sister with a demure sadness and unforced technique. She gave a very affecting suggestion of a diamond in the rough in the first act. By the third she was whizzing through an impeccable sequence of chaine turns, her controlled speed hinting at her background as a child skating prodigy. Crucially, this brilliance is always tempered by the softness encoded in Ashton's choreography. Stuart Cassidy was the Prince charmed at finding such unaffected loveliness in the high artifice of the ballroom. He partnered with considerate strength until the chilling moment when the braying horns mock the transience of feminine beauty and the clock strikes midnight.
The omnipresence of the clock motif in the music, the four seasons and 12 dancing stars in the choreography seems to serve as a memento mori for Cinderella, who must find a husband in the brief flowering before she reverts to ugliness. The real happy ending is that even when her surface loveliness has fallen away, the Prince still recognises his love in rags. The relentless ticking of the score reminds us that time is running out; the constancy of the Prince triumphs over time.
In rep to 3 Feb. Royal Opera House, London WC2 (071-240 1066)