Don Quixote, Royal Ballet , Royal Opera House, London

Warm wit and thrills aplenty

Nadine Meisner
Monday 10 February 2014 16:32

Acquired by the Royal Ballet last year, Nureyev's production of Don Quixote launched Ross Stretton's directorship in an atmosphere of high anticipation – and received a critical drubbing. People complained that it was too elderly (created for Stretton's Alma Mater, the Australian Ballet, in 1970), too old-fashioned (well, it is a 19th-century ballet), too provincial (take note, Australia) and that the performances lacked glitter (OK, maybe the leads did). Ten months on, the ballet returns as part of the company's three-week London stint, after their extended Australian tour (Australia does seem to be a theme these days) and before they break up for their summer holidays.

This time round, the company dance with as much whole-hearted energy as before which, in my opinion, was quite a lot. The opening Kitri and Basilio, though, were two of the best around. Marianella Nuñez has all the warm charm that Kitri needs and, despite being no crackling virtuoso, dances with an exciting, air-conquering breadth, while in the showy details she is secure enough to let you relax and enjoy. Carlos Acosta, back as a guest (he now dances mostly with American Ballet Theatre), as you would expect gives it all he's got – and more. A committed partner, the couple that he forms with Nuñez plays out the characters' teasing, affectionate interplay with lovely wit.

To stimulate our appetites, Acosta introduces some new tricks into his solos, and from the first multiple saut de basque you could feel the audience's collective bated breath. If he adds any more to the thrill quota, though, he risks becoming a circus turn, which would be jarring for a character who, although humorous and humble-born (Basilio is a barber), always epitomises classical elegance.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively performed by William Tuckett and Philip Mosley, thankfully seem less hammy than before. Luke Heydon as the ridiculous fop Gamache achieves such a level of clownish hilarity that my companion and I had hysterics during his wobbly-kneed, totally ineffectual duel with Don Quixote. (Heydon's rare comic talent in other roles as well makes his announced, inexplicable retirement a real blow.) Belinda Hatley was a beautiful Queen of the Dryads and Mara Galeazzi had just the right flashy sensuality as the street dancer.

I still think that Ross Stretton would have done better to acquire Nureyev's later version for the Paris Opera Ballet, where the narrative has been further tightened. I also wish that he had scrapped Anne Fraser's designs, because their staid, safe predictability covers the ballet with a visual yawn. Charles Barker's conducting continues to render the score leaden, when it should burst with colour and rhythm, rather than just chugging sedately onwards. It would be fine for a thé dansant, maybe, but not for a story of irrepressible youthful passion under the Spanish sun.

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