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The Lesson/La Sylphide

Royal Opera House

BALLETprogrammes hardly get better than the bill that paired this double Danish sizzler that was all bacon and no fat. It was the first staging at Covent Garden for both ballets.

The Lesson had received much pre-publicity, no doubt to the joy of the Opera House's PR team, because of its subject of serial killing and its brutal denouement. Why, I don't know. People are dropping dead all over the Covent Garden stage almost every day of the week in ballets and opera, if not because of some dastardly deed by a disreputable character, then at their own hands.

Ballet, I suppose, tends to serve up heroic, love-induced deaths, while this one is rather horrific and worthy more of a baritone that the graceful Johan Kobborg. Where's Bryn Terfel when you need a deranged nutter? So it was hardly surprising that the powers that be decided not to stage this production at matinees. Blimey what would those kids brought up on computer games and Brad Pitt decapitating Trojans have made of this. They would have no doubt fainted in the aisles. Poor sods.

Despite the subject, it is an exhilarating piece of theatre with Kobborg, the murderous ballet teacher in Flemming Flindt's marvellously choreographed staging of Eugene Ionesco's play, emphasising why he is the most exciting person on stage in the West End.

Roberta Marquez was the pupil on the opening night - even I might have bulked at Kobborg strangling Alina Cojocaru - and was a convincing innocent, the latest victim in the teacher's serial-killing spree.

Zenaida Yanowsky, tall and frumpish, was the pianist, whose control of the teacher was not only mental but also she had the physical presence to maintain her dominance. The tension continued to rise throughout, assisted by Georges Delerue's score, as Kobborg got more manic, Marquez more frightened, as pas de deuxs became increasingly frought, and Yanowsky more manipulative. The acting was superb.

Madge a witch?

Rarely do you get two productions with such convincing story lines in one evening, but La Sylphide provided a perfect contrast, although it too had its dark side. Kobborg turned producer for this second offering, using August Bournonville's 1836 version as his template and adding choreography of his own.

Set in Scotland, so there is plenty of tartan for those people who like to play with their sporrans, James (Ivan Putrov) prepares for his wedding but sees a vision of a sylph and falls immediately in love with it. Gurn (Josè Martin) uses what he sees as James' infatuation of another person, although not knowing who, to woo his bride Effie (Iohna Loots).

Madge (Sorella Englund), a witch, appears and forecasts that Gurn will marry Effie, angering the confused and somewhat dazed James, who threatens the old lady. The sylph reappears and James follows her to the forest.

A search party goes looking for James, but with no luck. Gurn proposes to Effie, encouraged by the sinister revenge-seeking Maude, and Effie, who obviously suffers from some attention-deficit disorder, forgets she is just about to marry someone else and accepts.

James, meanwhile, finds the sylph, places a veil round her shoulders given to him by Madge, kisses her, but her wings fall off and she falls to the ground. As her prone body is led away, James watches as his former fiancèe's wedding party gets under way in the distance, a loser twice over.

Alan Barker conducts Herman Løvenskiold's music with sensitivity for the romantic passages and celebration for the dancing and partying, although never leading us to believe that at any moment we will be transported into a Highland fling.

Putrov plays James sensitively as a tragic hero, while Cojocaru for once does not steal the show. I would have preferred to see her in The Lesson as the doomed pupil. Still doomed she was, as Private Fraser might have said, whatever her role.

Englund performed Madge with such cunning that she could almost had been related to Yanowsky's pianist. It was a great evening, with two dead bodies and not a disturbed child in the audience.

Review by Peter Wilson


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