La Fille mal gardée review – a sheer rush of happiness

Royal Opera House, London
Osipova and McRae vie with a Shetland pony in Royal Ballet’s impeccable Ashton

La Fille mal gardée is the most perfect ballet in the world ever. The most perfect thing to happen on a stage. The most perfect anything.” So tweeted one ballet fan on Thursday night, neatly compressing her delight at Frederick Ashton’s bucolic fantasia into 137 characters. And she’s right; no other work of art bestows quite the same rush of sheer happiness.

Fille, created by Ashton in 1960, is a simple tale of love prevailing. Not against near-immutable forces, but against the inconvenience of a widowed mother who wants her daughter to marry for money, despite the fact that the prospective bridegroom is, in the nicest possible way, a halfwit. Steven McRae is a likable Colas, Natalia Osipova a perky and gamine Lise, and Philip Mosley brings more than a touch of the late Les Dawson to his portrayal of the Widow Simone.

The choreography of Fille is notoriously demanding. Nowhere does Ashton demand of his ballerina more swooping sensuality, more pliancy of exposed neck, more lavish épaulement. Osipova meets the technical challenges of the role head-on, and if there are moments at the beginning of the ballet when her charm is a little forced – a little too broad and Bolshoi-scale – she quickly settles into character. Her phrasing, from curtain-up, is pin-drop precise; she hits each musical beat as if creating it. And her Act 2 grows and grows. The “When we are married” mime, which Ashton took directly from the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina’s memory of the 1885 St Petersburg production of Fille, is beautifully and touchingly delivered, with every gesture radiantly legible. Osipova’s embarrassment when discovered by Colas is sweet and funny, as is her rueful yielding to his kisses, and her dancing in the final pas de deux is all billowy loveliness.

Watch a trailer for Royal Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée.

Not all ballerina roles suit Osipova, with her chipmunk grin and soubrette allure. But Lise could have been made for her. The ballet is overflowing with sexual and fertility references: the cockerel’s dance, the maypole, and the scene with the milk churn, whose handle is agitated by Osipova with a perfectly pitched blend of innocence and erotic suggestiveness. And then there’s the one-handed lift in the coda of the Fanny Elssler pas de deux: an unequivocal indication that Colas is ready and able to get it up.

McRae’s straight-arrow charm and clean technical finish complement Osipova’s performance nicely, even if the pair don’t quite strike sparks off each other. Paul Kay is an appealingly daffy Alain, and Gary Avis a splendidly desiccated Notary. Lise’s friends are collectively and individually beguiling, with Sian Murphy’s wittily detailed mime, in particular, an ever-evolving delight. One of the great joys of this ballet is the way that Ashton deploys the ensemble. You can freeze the action at any moment and see a flawlessly balanced composition. As the final pas de deux unfolds, the couple’s friends are scattered around the stage with painterly naturalness, sitting on the stairs or leaning on the banisters with folded arms, their faces rapt and dreamy.

Fille has made something of a social media star of Peregrine the Shetland pony, now appearing in his fifth run of the ballet. On Thursday Peregrine delivered a characteristically professional performance, even if a purist might have demanded a little more expressiveness in the sugar-lump scene. The good news for Ashton fans is that next year the Royal Ballet is reviving the enchanting The Two Pigeons. Set to music by Messager, and first performed at Covent Garden in 1961, the piece features two live pigeons whose fluttering entrances and exits parallel those of the lovers. Let’s hope the birds prove as reliable, and as continent, as Peregrine.

  • At the Royal Opera House, London until 5 May

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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