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Le Rossignol at the MET

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Yesterday's Saturday matinee brought the first performance in more than twenty years of Ashton's Le Rossingol to the MET opera house. It was done in one act, with three scenes. The dancers were NYCB's Damian Woetzel as the Fisherman and ABT's Julie Kent at the Nightingale. What a charming, charming work!! It's basically an allegory about the power of music: the Emperor of China falls for a mechanical nightingale (think a large Neiman Marcus type bird with moving parts) and bans the nightingale from his kingdom. Big mistake. Only when he is gravely ill does he realize that it's the sound of the real nightingale that gives him back his power, kingdom and indeed his life. He gives the highest honor to the nightingale (the first "environmental protection" act?).

Well, the ballet "parts" (for lack of a better word) were solos and pas de deux with Damian and Julie -- a truly well-matched pair. The movements had all the signature choreography of Ashton's work: beautifuly flowing movement, seemless transitions from one pose to another, lunging arabesques for the nightingale, long-held poses for the fisherman (think Anthony Dowell's elegance), tatseful overhead lifts, the fisherman holding the nightingale in exquisite horozintal holds, etc. Both Damian and Julie gave their whole artistry to this work, and it was just glorious. At the same time as they were dancing, the singers (Olga Trifonova for the nightingale) and Barry Banks (for the fisherman) were singing. Glorious. For me it was a real delight to have my twin obsessions (ballet and opera) coming together at once. I think it worked for the MET audience too because there was not the usual coughing; people were totally engaged.

For those of you out there who are opera fans, the Oedipus Rex was also given the deluxe treatment. It was a very stylized version with the actor Philip Boxco as the speaker with top-notch singing by Stephanie Blythe (as Jocasta), Robert Gambill as Oedipus, and Barry Banks back as the Shephard. The world's first recorded dysfunction family would have been proud that their story was so well told!

The less said the better about the Rite of Spring, which opened the afternoon. Over thirty-five years of ballet going, I've never seen this done without being vulgar. My feeling is that it should just be done in concert version so each audience member can use his imagination as to what is primitive. Even closing my eyes didn't help because I heard the grunting the dancers and the heavy feet crossing the stage (which really interfered with the music).

Dance lovers: Go for the Le Rossignol. Opera lovers: go for the Le Rossignol and the Oedipus Rex.

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A bit of ancient history (OK, 1920s) for you. Alicia Markova was the original Nightingale in the Balanchine staging of the work for the Diaghilev company. The reigning prince of Monaco had heard of the new sensational work which had premiered in his principality, and ordered a command performance. The only problem was that the young teen-age Markova had caught the flu and was totally incapacitated and no one else was available to dance the part. Balanchine, still young and lithe, said that since the date was more or less set in stone, he would dance the part! Members of the company remembered him in costume and in the cage for the part, and said that he looked more like some kind of scantily-dressed ape than any kind of bird. When The Emperor (Serge Grigoriev) was on his deathbed, and the Nightingale appeared to "her" music, the King's Wives (corps members) began to stifle giggles and laughter. The "stage dialogue" ran sort of this way:

Wives: Mmmffff, snort, kickle, kackle, hee, hee.

Grigoriev: What's going on? Stop that!

Wives: Hee, hoo, ha, ha, ssSSssSSss.

Grigoriev: Stop it, I tell you! I'll fine you; I'll fire you; I'll KILL you!

Nightingale: Does arabesque over Grigoriev putting "her" face directly opposite his. Grigoriev sees that Balanchine has painted an eye in the middle of his forehead with makeup.

Grigoriev: YAAA! HOO HOO HOO (falls off deathbed, and lies on floor convulsing)

The Grimaldis pronounced the performance "Very interesting!"

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Kisselgoff called the Ashton "luminiuous," yet the entire review was about Doug Varone's "muddled" Rite of Spring. I wish she had devoted more space (about two lines) to the better performance.

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