Music: Ferdinand Hérold
Choreographer: Frederick Ashton
Everyone loves a bad boy, even sheltered peasant maids who live on farms with their belligerent mothers. So, when La Fille mal gardée otherwise known as The Wayward Daughter must choose between the boyish gauche of a neighbour’s son and the manly elegance of a local farmer, there is no competition. This glorious ballet, filmed in 2005, is the latest release from the Royal opera’s House’s Our House to Your House collection and every comic minute is pure delight.
After a hard day of video calls, lockdown restrictions and anxiety, there is no better way to unwind than a pastoral idyll complete with dancing chickens and a real pony. Frederick Ashton’s choreography fits Ferdinand Hérold’s music, adapted by John Lanchbery, so beautifully, capturing the soaring and softly romantic expression of the composition as the heroine is caught between the man she must marry and the one she really loves. Hérold’s calming score is sublime and just listening to it being played so beautifully by the Royal Opera House orchestra will soothe your cares away.
And this is by no means a “serious” ballet, so Ashton draws on the bold strokes of pantomime and fairy tale to envisage numerous pastoral scenes, evoked by designer Osbert Lancaster in painted scenery, smock blouses, straw hats and floral designs. This is reflected also in the use of ribbons and scarves throughout the production, a nod to the eventual Maypole that dominates the midsummer party in Act Two before descending into a cleverly realised storm as the dancers are flung from side to side by the wind and rain.
The ways in which Ashton’s choreographic choices reflect the rustic are extraordinary, drawing on country dances, formation, reels and, even in Act Three. a wonderful section of Morris Dancing for the male corps using clattering sticks and coordinated shapes. Yet, none of that ever detracts from the romance of the lovers and the more classical steps Ashton designs for their thwarted courtship, starkly separating the fumbling and purposefully stiffened shaping of the marionette-like official suitor and the elegant muscularity of the hero.
From the, occasionally sinister, human-sized chickens to the creation of horse and cart using members of the company and, of course, the real pony, there is a light comic emphasis in La Fille mal gardée, felt especially in the secondary cast, caricatures to a degree of the pantomime dame danced by Will Tuckett, the grouchy mother/jailor of The Wayward Daughter along with the bumbling deal-making old neighbour and childlike suitor.
Marianela Nuñez is a charming Lise, her characterisation especially enjoyable as the determined young woman prepared to use whatever tactics necessary to outwit her mother and win the man she truly loves. As Colas, Carlos Acosta just dazzles, outshining everyone else on stage with the grace and athletic solidity of his leaps and spins. The storytelling between them is superb and, thin as the plot may be, they bring both chemistry and warmth to the partnership.
This may be one of the oldest shows offered in lockdown, but Ashton’s choreography feels fresh as a field full of daisies, tied so meaningfully to the changing tones of the music. Expressive, lovely and playful this enchanting ballet is just the tonic after three months of lockdown. As we approach Midsummer’s Eve with social distancing still in place, maypoles and dancing chickens may have to wait till 2021 but going back to 2005 feels like a perfect dream.
Available here until 26 June 2020