On a ballet by Richard Strauss, presented by the American Ballet Theatre.
In the Metropolitan Opera House, the American Ballet Theatre has just presented Whipped Cream, the ballet by Richard Strauss (title in German: Schlagobers). A triumph it was, and a delightful one. But first, a word about the music, and styles.
Picasso had a blue period. And a rose period. And Cubist, Classical, and other ones. Stravinsky, too, went through periods. Early on, he was thoroughly Russian. Then he was neo-Classical. And then serial (twelve-tone). And so on.
How about Strauss? If he did not have periods, he certainly had styles, which he would display in whatever period. Think of the heroic Romanticism of, let’s say, Don Juan. Think of the exoticism, and eroticism, of Salome. And of the beautiful brutality of Elektra. And the Viennese sophistication of Der Rosenkavalier. And the late-in-life otherworldliness of Metamorphosen. Etc.
Whipped Cream is one of his two ballets. He wrote it in the early 1920s. The other ballet is The Legend of Joseph (Josephslegende), written a decade earlier. Speaking of decades, I reviewed a new recording of Joseph ten years ago. I said of the score, “. . . it is thoroughly Straussian, utterly characteristic. You hear some of ‘Salome,’ some of ‘Elektra,’ some of ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’”
So help me, the same is true of Whipped Cream. It has some Salome exoticism (if not the eroticism). It has some Elektra dissonances. It has some Rosenkavalier waltziness. (Sometimes, Richard seems a member of the Strauss family, doesn’t he?) And it has more. Like what?
Some neo-Classicism. Some folk dancing. Some Mendelssohnian lightness and grace. Some Berliozian freakiness—that phantasmagorical quality. I also thought of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, the Ravel opera (1925).
In short, Whipped Cream is a fine, varied, smile-making score—and too little known. Occasionally, I hear a suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Next time you give me a Strauss suite, make it from Whipped Cream, please.
ABT’s choreography is by the company’s artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky. It is ingenious and winning. It lifts the heart. The same can be said of the sets and costumes, designed by Mark Ryden. The entire ballet is a visual knockout. (Strauss can handle the sound.)
Years ago, I heard a British opera administrator sneer at productions she didn’t like as “chocolate box.” I think she meant that they were too pretty, like old-fashioned chocolate boxes. The same sneer can be directed at ABT’s Whipped Cream. But a chocolate box is what’s called for—in addition to a dark side (dark chocolate?)—and this one is delicious.
Let me comment on a whimsical touch (one of many). In the final scene, is that Abraham Lincoln, spectating from an upstairs window? Yes, it is.
Whipped Cream has something in common with another ballet, a much more famous one: The Nutcracker. But it also has something in common with a beloved opera, Hansel and Gretel. Maybe Ratmansky and Ryden can come play in the opera world?
On Friday night, the leading dancers for Whipped Cream were Daniil Simkin, Sarah Lane, Stella Abrera, and Marcelo Gomes. To a man, and woman, they were skillful and committed. At the same time—this is important—they were clearly having fun, reveling in what they were given to do, and able to do. This increases the pleasure of the audience.
And once more, we should marvel at Richard Strauss, that versatile and complete artist. He had a number of styles and wrote in many genres (though we are short on symphonies, chamber works, and piano pieces). Toward the end of his life, he told Hans Hotter, the great bass-baritone, “I like my songs best.”
You know, I think I do too. I’m going to listen to “Traum durch die Dämmerung” right now. Followed by “Cäcilie.”
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