It was fifteen years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last went to the Sydney Opera House. We were in Australia to celebrate the marriage of her brother, Lord Leumeah, to the Countess of Camden. One evening, whilst they were enjoying their nuptials, we snuck off to the Opera House and saw the Australian Ballet perform The Merry Widow, and damn fine they were too. Fifteen years on, we found ourselves once again in a land down under, and, joined by my Lord and the Countess, now accompanied by their daughter and heir, the little Marchioness of Minto, we took the opportunity to return to the stunning setting of the Opera House – this time to see the Australian Ballet take on Tchaikovsky’s 1890 hit, The Sleeping Beauty.
If you’ve been to the Opera House before, you know that one of the things you can do to make your evening extra special is book dinner in the Bennelong Restaurant, the fine-dining establishment that nestles at the front of the theatre, basically housed underneath the first nun in the scrum, if that’s how you characterise the building. The five of us enjoyed its pre-theatre sumptuousness, including a rather delectable McLaren Vale Somerled Shiraz, served in an elegant decanter. I had the carrot salad, roast lamb and the pine-lime, all of which tasted much more spectacular than they sound. They did however let themselves down by refusing to mix and match two items from the children’s menu onto the same plate. The Marchioness, like many a six-year-old, is quite a fussy eater. “The chef isn’t prepared to do it”, our waiter informed us. Pity. As a result, I wasn’t prepared to tip as generously as I normally would.
But what of the show? This is one of those grand productions that has been formulating in the back of someone’s head for decades. The someone in question is David McAllister, Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, who’s worked with the company, man and boy, on and off since 1983. Somewhat extraordinarily, this is the first full length work that he has choreographed for the company – in combination with the traditions of Petipa, of course. In the programme he explains that if he had commissioned anyone else to choreograph it, he would have been constantly interrupting and seeking changes, so clear is his vision for exactly how this work should look. So he had no choice but to do it himself. The production started in Melbourne, moved on to Perth, and finally had a three-week sell-out residency at the Sydney Opera House, closing on 16th December, which, as luck would have it, was the date on which we saw it.
Considering Australia is an innovative, “new” country, it’s maybe a surprise, but you can’t get more traditional than the Australian Ballet. They employ every classical trick in the book to keep alive the old performance traditions of Russian ballet down under: elaborate curtain calls, gentlemanly hand-waving any time a prima ballerina comes within a five feet radius of an inactive member of the corps de ballet, prolonged sequences of mime whenever they need to expand on plot development (a frown and two crossing hands means “no”; pointedly tugging at your ring finger means “I want to marry your daughter/princess/swan/nymph”.
But they carry it off spectacularly well. A full, resonant orchestra rings out Tchaikovsky’s great tunes under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon (who at a distance looks alarmingly like Nicola Sturgeon). Simply magnificent sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, where no extravagance is ever considered an extravagance too far, grace the stage. The set even gets its own round of applause at the beginning of Act Three.
And then there is the dancing, of course. For the most part, it’s exquisitely beautiful. In our performance, Princess Aurora was danced by Benedicte Bemet, a coryphée, and she’s certainly going places. It’s a demanding role and she danced with skill, grace and beauty throughout. Her Désiré was Kevin Jackson, one of the company’s Principal Artists, and he invested the role with great character and athleticism, really bringing the house down in his third act pas de deux. But for me the star of this show was Amber Scott, another Principal Artist, dancing the role of the Lilac Fairy. Elegance just radiates from her. I doubt she could open a tin of peas without doing it gorgeously. She’s just one of those dancers you just can’t take your eyes off. I was also really impressed with the pas de deux by Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo as Bluebird and the Princess Florine. The five fairies who dominate the prologue were also danced with enormous grace and beauty. From my vantage point in the circle I couldn’t quite identify who was dancing which role – but I particularly liked the dancer in ice blue and the one in dark red. Another was dressed in flamingo pink and green, and when she whizzed around, she looked like a watermelon in the blender.
The Sleeping Beauty Waltz is, naturally, a highlight; danced, traditionally, with floral garlands, and I must say it was a stunning sight: beautiful control, sheer elegance. Our mean and nasty Carabosse was danced by Gillian Revie, a guest artist whom I remember from her appearances in the Royal Ballet in the 1990s. The dancers who surrounded her costumed as rats gave great support, but my only criticism of the dancing would be concerning some members of the corps de ballet. The girls were great, but some of the guys were rather heavy on the crash landings from time to time – I know, I’m very demanding. Watching the entire ballet, you realise that the drama comes to an end all too soon with the conclusion of Act Two; Act Three is just an excuse for celebratory dancing for Aurora’s Wedding. This gives the ballet as a whole a slightly unbalanced feel – and with two twenty-minute-plus intervals, the show stretches out to almost three hours, which is a lot for a six-year-old Marchioness to take, not to mention two British tourists suffering from jetlag. But it really was a stunningly beautiful production, and the Opera House audience went wild with appreciation.
As implied earlier, the wine selection at the Bennelong Restaurant is pretty damn amazing. Buoyed up with confidence, I ordered a couple of glasses of fizz for the second interval from the circle bar. Oh dear. Any memories of the lavish, elegant fruit notes that might have lingered from our dinnertime Shiraz were eradicated by that glass of paint stripper. Lord Leumeah had a glass of white. Grudgingly, he described it as adequate, by which I interpreted that it was far from adequate. How very odd that the Opera House puts its inestimable name and splendid reputation to such lousy house wines?