A commedia dell’arte troupe performed in the Metropolitan Opera House last night. Was the opera company presenting Ariadne auf Naxos (the opera by Richard Strauss)? No, a ballet company, American Ballet Theatre, was presenting Harlequinade. A delightful piece of work it is, too.
ABT calls Harlequinade a “lost classic.” The ballet was originally known as Les Millions d’Arlequin—“Harlequin’s Millions”—premiering in Saint Petersburg at the turn of the century. Specifically, the work had its premiere on February 23, 1900. The choreographer was Marius Petipa, that master. It has now been updated by a master of today (if you will permit): Alexei Ratmansky.
But “updated” is misleading, for Ratmansky has recreated the work with help from archival notes: Petipa’s original steps.
What is the story of Harlequinade? The usual: Boy wants to marry girl, who wants to marry him back. Standing in the way is her dad, who wants to marry her off to a wealthy suitor. Drama ensues, until all is resolved happily (for most). This is the story of a million works of art (greater and lesser).
Harlequinade’s score is by Riccardo Drigo, a composer all but forgotten today. He was an Italian, living from 1846 to 1930, who had a long career at the ballet in Saint Petersburg. One item from Harlequinade gained a life outside the ballet. That was the Serenade, which appears in Act I.
And the score at large? It is gay, Italian, operetta-like—pleasant music to dance to. You would probably not want to make a suite out of it, as you would, say, a Tchaikovsky score. But it certainly performs its function. One number sounds a lot—a lot—like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Last night, the orchestra got through the score decently. Some soloists had some admirable moments—an unflubbing horn, for instance. The Serenade was outstanding, suitably smooth.
As for Ratmansky’s show, it is whimsical, colorful, smile-making. It is not dissimilar to his Whipped Cream, presented last year (and returning next month). If there is slapstick in Harlequinade—and there is—it is elegant slapstick.
The dancers’ technical proficiency, you could take for granted. What was most pleasing was the characterization, and the spirit. The dancers danced this show as though they felt lucky to be doing it. They had as much fun as anyone in the house.
Harlequin was James Whiteside, a masked whippet. His Columbine was Isabella Boylston, who brought her special ingredient: adorability, endearment. Pierrot was Thomas Forster, loose-limbed and Dick Van Dykey (to use a technical term). His Pierrette was Gillian Murphy, characteristically neat. Serving as the Good Fairy was Tatiana Ratmansky, the choreographer’s wife—enchanting.
The piece includes plenty of children, and the thought occurred to me: Is there anything adults love more than to watch children dance? Especially well?
What Harlequinade presents is a stream of happiness, even when the villains are on the stage. It is a feel-good show, yes, but one done at a high, high level, and there is nothing wrong with feeling good.