Fairy tales can come true; it can happen to you …especially if you’re in the audience at San Francisco Ballet’s lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty.
First presented in St. Petersburg in 1890, this collaboration between Pytor Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, the composer, and Marius Petipa, the great choreographer, was a prime example of classical Russian ballet at its finest. More than 100 years later, it still holds the title.
San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson has fiddled with the choreography and tweaked the plot a bit but, with a few exceptions, it remains – along with Swan Lake and, to a lesser degree, Nutcracker, definitive of the genre.
The story is familiar. Newborn baby princess is blessed by a cadre of spirits with beauty, grace and all the good stuff, but then cursed by the one who didn’t get invited to the christening feast. When princess reaches the age of 16, she is doomed to prick her finger on a spindle and die. Sentence is commuted to a century-long sleep by the benevolent Lilac Fairy who bourrees in, just in time to save the day.
Fast-forward 100 years to Act Two. Handsome prince hanging out in the forest is granted a vision of the sleeping princess. Deciding she looks pretty good for a woman of 116, fights his way through the thorny thicket surrounding the castle (with a little help from the Lilac Fairy). He awakens her with a kiss. Big celebration.
The San Francisco production, lovely to look at in almost every scene, marks the passage of time with costuming and sets. Act One is set in the 16th Century, with the Russian Court in lavish red and gold, trimmed with fur. It all has a rather Byzantine cast, making you think of plotting monks and boyars. One hundred years later, the Prince’s court goes hunting in powdered wigs and the whole thing has a delicate elegance straight out of Watteau.
There is an implicit history lesson here. It was during the century that Princess Aurora slept away that Peter the Great journeyed to Europe, bringing the fashion and customs of the wider world back to Russia, pulling her out of her historic insularity and isolation. Waking her up, as it were. Simply with the costuming, this production creates a metaphor between Sleeping Beauty and Mother Russia herself. Cool!
On opening night the Act One christening scene featured fairies danced by some of the principals of the company, none brighter than the amazing Lorena Feijoo. Anita Paciotti was the imperious Fairy of Darkness, arriving in company with thunder, lightening and three vaguely menacing attendants and vanishing in an impressive puff of smoke. The second scene, at Aurora’s sixteenth birthday party, has the beautiful Rose Adagio at its heart. Lucia Lucarra was so fresh and graceful one could easily understand how royal suitors from the four corners of the land came to sue for her hand.
But the prince for whom she is intended doesn’t show up for 100 years and the first intermission has passed. On opening night he was Cyril Pierre who made a manly prince – as manly as one could be in white tights. In the second scene, when the Lilac Fairy (a regal Muriel Maffre) conjures up a vision of the sleeping princess, the pas de deux is a gossamer fantasy. Lucarra and Pierre seem as if she is dreaming him at the same time as he is imagining her.
The Act Three wedding festivities (note that there are no less than three major parties in this ballet) commence with a series of divertissements. First up are the Jewels and their cavaliers. They all sparkle but Sherri LeBlanc, as the Diamond Fairy outshines them all. Darlene Bramer was an adorable White Cat, with Peter Brandenhoff sniffing around her as Puss in Boots. But the whole thing really took flight in the Bluebird Variation with Kristin Long as the Enchanted Princess and Joan Boada as the bird.
The wedding couple returns in the final grand pas de deux and, since this is a fairy tale, one presumes everyone lives happily ever after.
Except the brass. Nothing is perfect and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under Richard Bernas, has never sounded worse. Ragged entrances and really bad horns were apparent from the first notes of the overture and never got much better. Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score deserved better.