Herold: La Fille Mal Gardee / Nadia Nerina, David Blair, Stanley Holden

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HÉROLD-HAYDN-MARTINI-ROSSINI-DONIZETTI-HERTEL La fille mal gardée (arr. Lanchbery with additional music) John Lanchbery, cond; Nadia Nerina, David Blair, Stanley Holden, Alexander Grant, Leslie Edwards (dancers); Royal Ballet Covent Garden O ICA CLASSICS 5088, mono (90:37)

This is not an actual performance of La fille mal gardée but a film version made for the BBC between September 7 and 9 of 1962. The images are sepia and white, and at times the old style TV cameras can scarcely keep up with the speed of the dancers’ feet, but one thing that shines through like a beacon in this, as in so many ballets under the direct supervision of Frederick Ashton, is its marvelous combination of characterization and humor. I’ve long felt that Ashton always wanted to present characters up there on stage, not just decorous dancers showing off their techniques, and he was capable of slipping some humor into even the most serious works. In this piece of fluff, he was in his element, and as much as one can do so on a ballet stage, he created a silent film combining love story with comedy.

Although this derives from one of the oldest surviving ballets—its premiere was in 1789 at Bordeaux—both the choreography and the music morphed considerably through the next century and a half. The first step towards confusion occurred at the 1828 Paris revival, where Hérold was asked to adapt his score to include themes from other composers’ operas—among them Haydn, Martini, and Donizetti. In 1837 Paris Opéra ballerina Fanny Elssler insisted on a new tailored version of the pas de deux using her favorite melodies from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (specifically, the tune of the finale and the middle portion of “Udite, o rustici”). Somewhere along the line, the opening scene music of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia crept in as the introductory music to Lise and Colas in act I, while in Berlin in 1864, a completely new score by Peter Ludwig Hertel appeared. Ashton, being a bit confused as to which form of the music to use, was partly guided in this respect by Tamara Karsavina, who had danced Lise at the Mariinsky Theatre. She suggested a return, more or less, to the 1837 version (which he found in the library) but using musical inserts of his own choice. Since Ashton created Widow Simone’s clog dance, he incorporated a piece of folk music into the score. Originally he was aided in the project by noted composer Malcolm Arnold, but for some reason Arnold quit, so Ashton turned to his conductor, John Lanchbery, to piece the music together. The two of them worked together for two months, meeting at least three times a week to match music to action. Lanchbery would play some of the music to get Ashton’s feedback. This eventually led to his writing interpolated passages to blend Hérold’s, Donizetti’s, Rossini’s, and Hertel’s music together, as well as composing Leitmotifs for Widow Simone and Colas and the “disaster” music in the last act.

The principal dancers—Nerina as Lise, Blair as Colas, Holden as Widow Simone and Grant as the “rich dweeb” Alain—were undoubtedly the cream of his then-current crop. By comparison with today’s dancers, only Blair suffers ever so slightly. He can do tremendous jetées and his elevation is superb, but he only occasionally creates the same kind of continuous flow with his motions that the amazing Carlos Acosta can achieve nowadays. Otherwise, however, this is the superior production. Pride of place goes to Nerina, whose series of rapid entrechats in the pas de deux have the rapidity and pointed grace of a cat; moreover, in all of her dancing one continually gets the impression that she’s having a ball, even though it must have been extremely demanding work. See my review elsewhere of An Evening with the Royal Ballet, and you will note my disappointment in the technically fine but somewhat staid dancing of the same scene by Marianela Nuñez.

I was also very impressed by the dancing of the two comic roles. Holden certainly can’t hold a patch technically on William Tuckett, who does the clog dance in the later video, but he doesn’t have to. His highly practiced “stumbling” looks more real, as if he’s about to trip over his own ankles and fall on the floor. Indeed, while watching him perform this dance I couldn’t help thinking that Ashton may have gotten the idea for some of these steps from watching Ray Bolger as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, so similar were his motions. Alexander Grant, playing the role of the dim-witted Alain, conversely put me in mind of someone who came much later—Martin Short as Ed Grimley. Several of the steps Short used in doing his Grimley character were right there onscreen, being danced by Grant…not to mention a cowlick (but in the back rather than the front). I wonder if Short ever saw a production of this ballet?

I was particularly impressed by several of the little touches that Ashton put into certain scenes, for instance the intricacy of the dance in which Cola and Lise form a cat’s cradle out of her ribbon while dancing, or the maypole dance for the corps in which they twisted and untwisted the ribbons with deceptively simple but actually quite complex movements. And then there were the scenes involving Alain, of which I will give you two: During his first scene he inadvertently opens his umbrella and falls to the ground behind it. Colas and Lise push it aside to find him, but he has slid between the legs of his father and pops up behind him! Also, in the act I finale, a sudden thunderstorm, Alain and the Widow swerve back and forth across the stage—umbrella opened—as if they were actually being windswept, and do so in a really funny, skewered way.

If anything, act II is even funnier, more clever and well staged than the first, particularly in the modified morris dance for the male corps (no bells on their shins but they did dance with sticks held at shoulder height). Their dancing in this scene is simply spectacular. There’s also a marvelous scene where Colas (Blair) lifts Lise (Nerina) at the top of a double-door to give her a kiss, and she literally seems to be floating up to him; but this is one of Nerina’s special qualities, the ability to appear as if she is floating. Once again in this act, her work on pointe appears completely effortless—you never once see or sense the physical tension that goes into these moves.

Lise hides Colas in her bedroom before Mom (Widow Simone) comes back, but shortly after her return Thomas, the notary, the notary’s assistant, and Alain return to have her sign the marriage contract and wed her daughter to the dimwit. When Alain goes to open Lise’s bedroom door and finds her in her wedding dress, kissing Colas, he falls backwards down the stairs and everyone is in a tizzy, but Lise explains everything and begs forgiveness. Happily, even the notary realizes that they are a better match and encourages Simone to forgive Lise and accept Colas as a son-in-law, following which the latter celebrates his good luck with a series of excellent fast turns. Only Thomas seems to be taking it badly as he ushers his son out. And there are two surprise postludes: first, when Alain returns to the now-empty farmhouse and furtively moves around…until he retrieves his beloved umbrella, and the second when everyone is walking down the country path. Thomas makes a move to “come on,” which you assume is a gesture to Alain, but instead it’s the chickens who follow him first—trailed, finally and inevitably, by Alain.

The only complaint I have of this DVD is that the numbering sequence of the various “chapters” is off by one, because the booklet lists an “Introduction to the ICA Classics Series” as No. 1, but you only get this if you select “play all.” Otherwise, if you choose to select chapters of the ballet, you will be off by one number—in other words, the act I pas de deux is actually chapter 16, not 17 as listed in the booklet. But this is an absolutely delightful ballet and a classic performance. Despite the sepia-and-white print, I would even recommend this to young girls who are interested in ballet. It’s a funny enough story and has an excellent level of difficulty in it that will captivate and delight them. As for anyone else who enjoys ballet, this is a must.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Ferdinand Herold

Lise – Nadia Nerina
Colas – David Blair
Widow Simone – Stanley Holden
Alain – Alexander Grant
Thomas – Leslie Edwards
A Notary – Franklin White

The Royal Ballet
Covent Garden Orchestra
John Lanchbery, conductor

Frederick Ashton, choreographer
Osbert Lancaster, designer

Recorded at BBC Studio, London, 7–9 September 1962

Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: Enhanced Mono
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Booklet notes: English, French, German
Running time: 90 mins
No. of DVDs: 1

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ICAD 5088

  • UPC: 5060244550889

  • Label: ICA Classics

  • Composer: Louis Ferdinand Herold

  • Conductor: John Lanchbery

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra