Paris Opéra: Cathy comes home again

Wuthering Heights has spawned a pop song, films and even a disastrous stage musical. Could the Paris Opéra make it into a successful ballet? John Percival went along to find out
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The starting-point of Kader Belarbi's Wuthering Heights ballet for the Paris Opéra, Hurlevent, wasn't the book itself but a set of pen-and-ink illustrations made by the artist Balthus in 1933. Agathe Berman, who had collaborated with Belarbi on other productions, found them and suggested the subject, and they drew up a scenario together. Their ballet derives freely from Balthus, Emily Brontë and the moors that inspired her, plus strong influences from the Romantic ballet as it flourished in her time.

This is the first long ballet that Belarbi (one of the company's senior stars) has made, although he began choreography early in his career, about the same time as getting his first solo roles. Maybe it was risky for the company's director, Brigitte Lefèvre, to commission him on the strength of small earlier pieces, but it is her practice to have a specially created full-length work every year, so audiences come with some expectancy. And Belarbi hedged his bets by what was manifestly a close collaboration with the composer and designers, as well as Berman.

Philippe Hersant says that he wrote the music like an opera without words, building on Belarbi's stipulated structure, but creating sustained scenes rather than separate numbers. He evokes the various characters – not only the different moods of Catherine and Heathcliff, from childhood love to consuming passion, but Edgar's melancholy and the morbidity of Linton (who dies of consumption in this treatment). The music is too complex to judge fully in its own right on one hearing, but first impressions are that it is at least like superior film music, although hardly a ballet at the level of Giselle.

Giselle and La Sylphide are prime structural influences on Hurlevent. The first half is set in the real world; then, after the intermission, the world of Heathcliff's visions gradually becoming more prominent. Catherine's emanations, a Wili-like corps de ballet who strikingly first appear flying in from the wings, are opposed by a male group surrounding Heathcliff, this set-up foreshadowed in Act I by a similar division among the peasants and the bourgeois who populate the scenes. So there is a lot of ensemble work all through. It is, however, a highly stylised handling of the drama.

Naturally, it is the principals who dominate. Marie-Agnès Gillot transforms herself remarkably from the small, gauche, barefoot, childhood Catherine into a taller, svelte bride in soft shoes. Her ghost is a classic figure in toe-shoes: like the 19th-century ballet masters who invented pointe work, Belarbi introduces it only for the illusory, ethereal characters. For the finale where she and Heathcliff find peace, they revert to their barefoot intimacy, although now without the earlier childish gaiety. There is an amazing contrast between desperately fierce, angry torrents of movement ending the first half and the quietness of the finale, dying away to stillness.

Nicolas Le Riche is Heathcliff, stretched to the extremes of his physical and emotional range. His technical virtuosity provides the violence, but he also reveals a deep despair on losing Catherine to Edgar (Jean-Guillaume Bart), and a cool, quiet authority later in compelling the marriage of Cathy and Linton. His cruelty in seducing Isabelle (Eléonora Abbagnato) is done almost casually, but there is a positive relish in the way he drives Hindley (the admirable Wilfried Romoli) to his tragic end.

Curiously, one of the dominant figures is a minor character: Heathcliff's servant and ally Joseph. Belarbi makes him more genuinely religious than the Bible-thumping original, and uses him to control much of the ritual that surrounds the action. Jean-Marie Didière's quietly commanding presence is perfect.

Belarbi has given his dancers interesting roles; whether he has given them memorably significant choreography is another matter, but it is fluent and expressive. My guess is that Mats Ek might be the biggest single influence on the movement, but the real decisive factor is that Belarbi grew up under the multifarious repertoire choices of Rudolf Nureyev's directorship, providing a uniquely wide background of ballet, old and new. Bold, intelligent and sometimes surprising choices based on this let him concentrate on revealing the subject: not through continuous narrative, but by decisive incidents.

Which of the collaborators, I wonder, invented the astonishing moment when small objects suddenly fall from above the stage, landing with a crash to become Joseph's garden of flowers. Anyway, the designer is Peter Pabst, who is a man of wide experience but best known in Britain for his work with Pina Bausch. No surprise, then, to see the simplest objects used imaginatively: a single tree at the back, almost flattened by wind; tall windows wheeled on to indicate a room.

A final, sacrilegious confession: Wuthering Heights is, for me, a muddled, overrated book, and I was surprised how much Belarbi and his team managed to make of it.


Details of further performances on