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Should 19th century ballets be updated?


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#16 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 20 April 2001 - 11:52 AM

One of the main arguments of the partisans of updating the classics is that they consider it an essential step to assure the survival of the work. Patrice Bart in Paris is a case in point. Just like his mentor and example Rudolph Nureyev, of whom he was the assistant at the Paris Opera for several years, Bart has now produced his own versions of 19th century classical ballets ("Don Quixote", "Coppelia", "Swan Lake", "La Bayadère", "Nutcracker", more to follow).

Updating means for Bart re-choreographing parts, altering the libretto, tightening the action, adding psychological depth to certain characters… no matter, everything is done for the sake of keeping the work alive and kicking, and accessible for today's audiences. Funny, but except maybe for his Bayadère, I wasn't too thrilled by the result and most of the changes felt like redundant. Must have been me.

His starting point is not necessarily distrust of the original. Bart considers he knows too little of what this "original" is, what it looked like and how it was done. He thinks it's beyond his reach. That's why he doesn't disapprove of an experiment like the Mariinsky's reconstruction of Petipa’s "Sleeping Beauty", because he considered this particular theatre was in the right position to attempt the reconstruction and had the necessary sources and knowledge at hand.

Bart finds the Spanish character dances of most productions of "Don Quixote" weak and beside the point, because they are only "in the style of". For his own "Don Quixote" he asked the Spanish castanet virtuoso José de Udaeta to re-choreograph them. In my view it all depends of which choreography "in the style of" we are considering: is it original Petipa or Bournonville, or is it another update in the 4th degree by less inspired artists of what once has been Petipa or Bournonville?

#17 Ed Waffle

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Posted 22 April 2001 - 08:08 PM

We were at the Detroit Opera House twice this weekend for a Michigan Opera Theatre production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Generally on this venue I would discuss the ballet in the second act—which was well choreographed and performed, especially given the limited room on stage the dancers had.

However “La Traviata” is made for the thread on updating nineteenth century classics. It is often updated—since the original production was in costumes and sets from the time of Louis XIV, even setting it in the Paris of 1850, the year of its premiere, would be considered updating.

What always defeats any attempt to make the story more congenial to late twentieth or early twenty-first century tastes, though, is the central conflict of the libretto and the scene upon which the conflict turns. The libretto made perfect sense in Italy and France in 1850. Now it is unbelievable and could be offensive to large sections of the opera-going population.

The central scene takes place in the home of Violetta Valery. She is a retired courtesan from the demimonde of Paris who has fallen in love with Alfredo Germont. She has abandoned her old life and is in the process of selling everything she owns so that she and Alfredo can afford to continue to live together. Alfredo’s father shows up and first demands then begs Violetta to leave Alfredo so that Alfredo’s sister “a girl virginal and pure” can marry the man of her dreams. If the scandalous living arrangements continue, the marriage is off. Of course, with the period’s moral code, a marriage between Alfredo and Violetta is out of the question. To add a bit more pathos, Violetta is dying of consumption and knows she has only a few months to live and is happier than she has ever been.

At the end of this scene, a woman sitting in our section was just seething. We had been talking with her and her companion before the opera started. It was the second time she had been to an opera and she was bemused and outraged at why Violetta and Alfredo would even listen to his father. And at the end of the opera, about an hour later, she was part of the screaming, stomping, roaring ovation that greeted the singer who had been Violetta that evening.

By that time, our section mate had, almost against her will, been seduced by Verdi as Violetta had been seduced by love. She had “bought into” the insanely straight-laced social mores of mid-nineteenth century southern Europe that were necessary for this story to work. The combination of a story believable on its own terms, ravishingly beautiful music and an electrifying performance brought her into Verdi’s world, which might be the only one in which this opera could exist.

4Ts mentioned the Trump Tower “Marriage of Figaro”, which I agree did not work very well. The “Cosi fan tutte” set in Despina’s Diner on the New York State Thruway, though, was a real gem and expressed Mozart and DaPonte’s edgy battle of the sexes as well as most productions I have seen. Both were done by the same director.

Ballet is much more vital than opera just now—it takes millions of dollars and years of work to get a new opera on stage, for example. While it seems that new ballet works are constantly being created. There are a lot of good reasons for this, all of which are beyond the limits of this thread. One result of the it, though, is that opera has become a real director’s or producer’s art, which leads to many of the horrors that are inflicted on an unsuspecting public.

By the way, the Act II ballet was choreographed by Joanne Cusmano although the dancers were not credited in the program. More on it in another post.


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