The American Ballet Theatre ended its season at the Metropolitan Opera House with another Tchaikovsky ballet—this one The Sleeping Beauty. I say “another" one because they had done Swan Lake two weeks before. The Sleeping Beauty is no Swan Lake, musically (or dramatically). But that’s a ridiculously high bar, isn’t it? And The Sleeping Beauty, whatever its defects, will live forever. It has already lived a century and a quarter.
I’ll say more about the music in a moment. First, some dancers.
On the night I attended The Sleeping Beauty, Stella Abrera was Princess Aurora—the Beauty of the title—and she was celebrating her twentieth anniversary with ABT. The crowd roared for her. They knew it was a special night for her. But they would have been enthusiastic regardless, for she is one of those dancers, one of those performers: the kind an audience roots for. She is winning, endearing.
Her Prince was Marcelo Gomes, who conducted himself as he usually does: like he owned the place. He has possession of the stage and of himself. Veronika Part was the Lilac Fairy, who doubles as a fairy godmother. Miss Part was willowy and almost aunt-like or maternal, I would say—godmotherly? Nancy Raffa was Carabosse, the evil fairy, and she exuded witchly arrogance.
Let me say a word about two more dancers. One is Zhong-Jing Fang, who made a pleasing Canary. This character’s dance put me in mind of another character, who appeared earlier in the ABT season: the Golden Cockerel (in Rimsky-Korsakov). Birds of a feather? Also, Tchaikovsky’s music for the Canary contains a touch of his Chinese Dance, from The Nutcracker.
Dancing the part of Violente (Temperament) was Catherine Hurlin. In addition to technique, she had what I can only describe as attitude.
The Sleeping Beauty was obviously a feast for Alexei Ratmansky and Richard Hudson. The former supplied staging and additional choreography. Additional to whose? To Petipa’s, as you know. Hudson supplied scenery and costumes, “inspired by Léon Bakst” (Russian artist, 1866–1924). Watching their Beauty, you could tell that Ratmansky and Hudson could not wait to get their hands on the piece. And why not? It is chockfull of color, variety, and, of course, beauty.
A couple of details, please. When the Lilac Fairy glided up in her boat, I thought of Lohengrin: “What time’s the next swan?” Also, the Prince was dressed up like a Redcoat—as in Paul Revere’s opposition.
Do you know the expression “one damn thing after another”? Well, The Sleeping Beauty might be described as “one dance after another.” They keep coming and coming, seemingly without end. And Tchaikovsky gives them music with typical ease. For him, melodies grow on trees.
Once, I asked Lorin Maazel (the late conductor) why people tend to sneer at Tchaikovsky, Puccini, et al. (It is middlebrows who sneer. Highbrows and lowbrows don’t. It’s the middles who are the trouble.) He gave me one word: “Envy.” I wish you could have heard the utter and perfect dismissiveness with which he said it.
The Sleeping Beauty, like other Tchaikovsky scores, is a festival of woodwinds. No composer was ever a better friend to these instruments. Yet he gives others plenty to do. There are his characteristic, and extended, string solos, for example.
I’m sorry to say that The Sleeping Beauty nods now and then—and an audience member might too. There is chaff among this wheat. I have always thought, in particular, that the ballet deserves a better ending. The last minutes of it are frightfully dull—just filler, fodder, in G minor. From the pen of Tchaikovsky?
Swan Lake is essentially unnodding. You barely have to excerpt it, or make a suite of it. The Sleeping Beauty could use excerpts, suites. But what excerpts, what suites!
P.S. Many years ago—like fifteen—I was talking with a fellow music critic. Kurt Masur had just conducted a Tchaikovsky symphony. I said, “Masur’s Tchaikovsky is sort of Tchaikovsky for people who don’t like Tchaikovsky. It’s disciplined, taut, rigorous, Classical, exacting.” My friend responded, “Anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky is an [expletive].”
Ha. I loved it.