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Royal Danish Ballet

‘Napoli’

November 2009
Copenhagen, Operaen

by Jane Simpson



© Costin Radu

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When I first heard that the Royal Danish Ballet was planning an updated version of August Bournonville's wonderful, joyful Napoli, I admit that my immediate reaction was 'Are they crazy? They can't do that!'. But the more I think about it the harder do I find it to see why they shouldn't do it if they want to. Sixty or seventy years ago, before the age of film archives and before the rest of the world really knew what treasures were hidden in Copenhagen, it would have been different, and risked the permanent loss of a masterpiece: but now, why not? It's focused a lot of interest on questions of authenticity and tradition and made people think about what's essential in Bournonville, and the next balletmaster, or the one after that, may perhaps profit from that and be able to produce a truer version even than the one that has now been shelved. Better a complete and clear temporary break from tradition than a creeping corruption by little cuts and modifications and pastiche insertions.

So I don't see why not; but on the other hand, why? I'd guessed that maybe audiences were voting with their feet - the last time I saw Napoli here the theatre was far from full - but apparently not: Nikolaj Hübbe's primary motives seem to be a wish to explore the possibilities of the plot more deeply, and curiosity. He and his co-producer, Sorella Englund, wanted to find out if by moving the setting of the piece to the Naples of the 1950s they could show the story from a new angle, and re-examine the motivations of the characters - something that's been done hundreds of times, of course, in drama, opera, and ballet's own Russian classics. They chose the post-war period, I think, to find if the lovers' story would have a new resonance against a background of poverty and crime rather than the idealised, and now extremely remote community Bournonville presented, and although I really don't believe audiences need to see a hero in jeans and t-shirt to understand what's going on in his heart, it certainly derails your automatic response mechanism.

 


Gitte Lindstrom and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli
© Costin Radu


OK so far, then: the big question is, does it work in practice, or is it one more of the many concepts which have not made it from the programme notes to the stage? Considering the evening as a whole, the oddest thing is that the three acts are so different from each other in look and feeling that it's almost like watching a triple bill. Act 1 - the most problematic for me - is a busy slice of Italian neorealism; the replacement for the lost second act is an underwater contemporary ballet; and the third act, apart from a few minutes at the beginning, is Bournonville's Act 3 almost exactly as we know and love it. It certainly isn't boring, but it does lose the sense of a unified and complete work of art.

Hübbe and Englund acknowledge the influence of Fellini on their realisation of the first act, and all Neapolitan (low)life is here. The trouble is that whilst film can direct our gaze and focus our attention, a stage production can't, and it's easy to spend far too much time looking away from the main action to check you're not missing some little cameo elsewhere. It's too much: edit it, cut some of the characters, lose the dog, give more air to what's left - and trust the audience more. We don't need everything spelling out: an actor like Morton Eggert, for instance, can tell us everything about a corrupt priest just by his prim, smug little smile - no need to show him actually hustling a small boy away up an alley. Hübbe, as you might guess from that episode, has downplayed the role of religion in the story - perhaps the most controversial of his innovations. When the hero believes he's let his girlfriend drown in a storm at sea, he is comforted not by a priest but by a wandering mystic - a woman - who encourages him to believe that the power of his own love will enable him to find and rescue her.

 


Thomas Lund as a 'street-singer' in Napoli
© Costin Radu


The producers write admiringly of the way Fellini shows both the humour and vitality of his subjects and the vulnerability and fear just under the surface, but they've given themselves a hard task in maintaining a balance between the light and the dark, not helped by the consistently cheerful music. I can just about cope with the way Gennaro's friends break off from their nefarious pursuits to dance Bournonville's bright ballabile; it's much more difficult, though, to handle the street-singer's act - he's a transvestite in this version, and especially when played by Thomas Lund his scarcely-hidden pain makes it hard to watch despite the jokes. I own that the first time I watched this act I disliked it intensely; but I was committed to a second performance the next evening and much to my surprise - and relief - I quite liked it. A day of sorting out my thoughts, a different cast - and you learn to provide your own filter, I suppose, so that the background stuff stays in the background and you see what you've decided is important.

 


Gitte Lindstrom and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli
© Costin Radu


The first thing to be said about the new Act 2 is that it's very good to look at, with Maria Ravn's set and the ravishing, shifting lighting by Mikki Kunttu creating a mysterious underwater world where it's no surprise to discover a corps de ballet of naiads in thrall to their overlord, Golfo. Louise Alenius has written new music, also mysterious and shimmering, with whispering voices welcoming Teresina to their kingdom. The choreographers - Hübbe and Englund - are more concerned with telling the next bit of the story rather than with creating a near-abstract little ballet but they've achieved some very pretty effects anyway - overtones of Balanchine aren't exactly a surprise, some unmistakeably Ondine-y touches were more unexpected. Hübbe speaks passionately about his wish to show that love can save someone from the clutches of death and I think he could make his case more strongly by rethinking the moment when Gennaro finally wakes Teresina to the memory of who she is - it seems a little perfunctory, a bit rushed: it's the turning point of the story and deserves a slower, deeper exposition. Even so I think this act, on its own terms, can be counted a success.

Act 3 is extraordinary: it starts with the funeral of the believed-drowned Teresina (with umbrellas, of course - ballet funerals seem to have terribly bad luck with the weather) - Teresina suddenly reappears, to the astonishment of all, and is quickly married to Gennaro - a sort of MC suggests there should be some dancing to celebrate - and bang, we're off into the pas de six, the tarantella and the joyful finale. The happy couple leave for their honeymoon on a cream-coloured Vespa and we all go home happy. I'd been really looking forward to finding out how all the dancing, and the pretty dresses and so on, would be accounted for in the 1950s setting and was amazed to find that, on stage at least, they're not accounted for at all - they just happen. The secret is in the cast list, where the soloists are named as the four seasons and the four winds - it's a sort of celebration of fertility and the cycle of life, a masque for a wedding I suppose. But although I'm quite prepared to believe that something on these lines did - maybe still does - go on in Italy, it really, really needs some more introduction, some explanation, to stop it looking as if we've just come to the end of the update and now we're going back to the old ballet everyone loves. Cahnging the costumes might help, too, to remind us that we haven't really just slipped back through a time warp.

 


Gitte Lindstrom and Jean-Lucien Massot in Napoli
© Costin Radu


Oh, and the dancing - almost an afterthought given the attention focused on the production. There's been something of a changing of the guard in the casting: Gitte Lindstrøm, a feisty, strong Teresina, was the only one who'd danced one of the leading roles before; Susanne Grinder, in another cast, is far less assertive and looks her best in Act 2, where the beauty of some of her dancing is most clearly seen. The first cast Gennaro, Ulrik Birkkjær, earned an on-stage promotion to Solodanser (Principal, elsewhere) after his debut performance: he makes a charming young hero, and his dancing of his new solo in the last act was brilliantly nimble. I was very pleasantly surprised by his alternate, Alexander Stæer, who is far stronger than he looked a couple of years ago and also proved himself a fine actor. Jean-Lucien Massot and Sebastian Kloborg brought out very different aspects of Golfo - Massot very physical, Kloborg more sinister and other worldly, both of them convincing. From the huge double casts I saw - there are 18 named roles as well as the last act soloists - I'll just pick a few who specially impressed me: Louise Midjord. very human and sympathetic as Teresina's mother; Gudrun Bojesen as the 'wanderer', beautiful and otherworldly in bare feet and a pale blue gown; Fernando Mora, a long streak of misery as the pasta seller; Alban Lendorf, leaping astonishingly through both the ballabile and the first solo in the pas de six; and Diana Cuni, also in the pas de six, still looking as if she alone has the secret of perpetual motion.

 


Gitte Lindstrom and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli
© Costin Radu


At both the performances I saw, the audience reaction grew warmer as the evening went on, and both were received with cheers at the final curtain. The Danish critics have been a little cooler, with most of them expressing some reservations - but no-one, so far as I know, has come out totally against the whole project. If the production is going to stay in the repertoire, it would benefit from quite a lot of tidying up, especially in the first act and the beginning of the last one. There are some changes for the better in it - I liked the way family and friends joined in the tarantella, for instance - and others less felicitous; and there's one big question hanging over the whole concept: does the replacement of religious belief by reliance on the power of human love betray Bournonville?

 


Gudrun Bojesen as the 'wanderer' in Napoli
© Costin Radu


So far as I'm concerned, this isn't as rewarding evening in the theatre as a good performance of the original - but it's an interesting experience, something I don't mind the thought of seeing again, and it certainly gives you a lot to think about. Just so long as it's not for ever.


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