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Royal Ballet Don Quixote 30 March 2019, 13:30, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Except when I was a graduate student in Los Angeles, I have visited Covent Garden several times a year, every year, since 1969. Seldom have I enjoyed a performance at the Royal Opera House more than last Saturday's matinee of Don Quixote. I had already seen that production several times in the cinema and once on television and had been somewhat underwhelmed by those transmissions (see ¡Por favor! Don Quixote streamed to Huddersfield 17 Oct 2013). I think that must be because no screening comes close to communicating the colour, movement and energy of the live show.
Although Gerard Davis referred to this production by Carlos Acosta as a remake in the programme notes, it seems to be pretty much the same as other companies' versions of the ballet. The prologue begins with the dotty Don Quixote sheltering the shoplifting Sancho Panza. The rogue kits the old man out with a bedpost for a lance and a shaving bowl for a helmet. He is dubbed a knight by an imagined dulcinea and is confronted immediately by equally imaginary hooded demons. As in other versions, he meets Kitri and Don Basilio in the town square and helps them elope. On their travels, they meet gipsies. He falls ill fighting ambulatory windmills. In his delirium dreams of dryads or tree spirits. They return to the town where Kitri's suitor is partnered up, KitrI marries Don Basilio and Don Quixote and his squire slip away for more adventures. I understand that the score had been rearranged and reorchestrated by Martin Yates but I did not detect any variations even though I know the music well. Aspects of the show that impressed me particularly were the lavishness of Tim Hatley's sets and costumes and the slickness and energy of the dancing.
My enjoyment of the show was facilitated greatly by the casting of Alexander Campbell as Don Basilio. A year or so ago I read about his taking part in a scheme by the RAD and MCC to encourage kids to take up ballet and cricket. Perfectly natural in my view as I have always had a passion for the two. I think it was Arnold Haskell who observed that cricket had predisposed the British to ballet pointing out many parallels between the two. Like another of my favourites, Xander Parish, Campbell had been a promising cricketer as a boy. I had long surmised that that might be the case before I had read that article for Campbell commands the stage like a batsman at the crease. There is something about his manner - perhaps his grin - that makes it impossible not to like him. He wielded his guitar while wooing the coquettish Kitri as an extension of himself just as a batsman holds his bat. As he seized her fan in the same scene I imagined his diving for a catch. In his jumps and lifts, he is much an athlete as an artist. It may be a figment of my imagination as it may be have been years since he last played the game, but I think that his youthful cricketing prowess has contributed more than a little to his appeal as a dancer.
Campbell's Kitri was the Brazilian first soloist, Mayara Magri, She excelled in that role. I was told by a well-informed acquaintance whom I met in the interval that last Saturday's matinee had been her debut. If that was the case, her performance was all the more impressive. I mentioned her coquetry in the previous paragraph but the role also requires virtuosity and prodigious stamina. She displayed those qualities in abundance, particularly in the last act where she dances in the pub and in the final pas de deux where she performs lots of fouettés. She dazzled me with those displays.
Other artists who particularly delighted me included Itziar Mendizabal as Mercedes, Claire Calvert as the queen of the dryads. Lara Turk as the Dulcinea and, of course, Gary Avis as Don Quixote. It was also good to see Jonathan Howells as Sancho Panza. I had been looking forward to seeing Thomas Whitehead as Gamache. I am one of his fans and that is not just because he comes from Bradford. That role was danced by Benet Gartside whom I also follow. I hope that Whitehead's absence was not the result of injury or illness but, if it was, I wish him a full and speedy recovery. Valentino Zucchetti had been advertised to dance the matador and he was also indisposed through illness or injury. I wish him a full and speedy recovery too. He was replaced if my memory is correct, by Reece Clark but sadly he was also hurt and had to be replaced (I think) by Thomas Mock. Like the rest of the cast, Mock and Clark danced well. I wish Clark too a full and complete recovery. I congratulate everyone who took part in that performance.
I have been lucky enough to see two other fine performances of Don Quixote. On Christmas day of 2017, I saw Mathieu Ganio and Isabella Boylston in the ballet company of the Paris Opera (see
Paris Opera Ballet's Don Quixote 28 Dec 2017). I wrote:
"Spectacular choreography needs virtuoso dancers and Isabella Boylston is a virtuoso par excellence. She launches into grands jetes almost as soon as she appears on stage and hers seemed as graceful and effortless as any I have seen before. She danced Kitri who ends the show with spectacular fouettés. I have seen plenty of those from lots of Odiles but the excitement that Boylston generated with hers at the Bastille last night could not have been exceeded by Legnani herself."A few weeks later, on 28 Feb 2019, I was delighted again by Sho Yamada and Riho Sakamoto in the lead roles in the Dutch National Ballet's performance of that work (see A Day of Superlatives - Dutch National Ballet's Don Quixote 1 March 2018). I enjoyed that show a lot:
"I don't think I have ever seen a better Don Quixote even though I have seen artists like Isabella Boylston and Marianela Nuñez dance Kitri and Carlos Acosta dance Don Basilio. Above all, I don't think I have ever seen the Dutch National Ballet dance better."Comparisons between three great performances by three great national companies would be odious. They all had strengths. For me, the Royal Ballet's were Hatley's designs and the casting of Campbell, Magri and Avis. It is enough for me to say that the Royal Ballet's Don Quixote is right up there in my esteem with the Paris Opera's and HNB's.
Without wishing to be too political I had booked my ticket to Don Quixote to cheer me up for what had been scheduled to be the day after brexit. As it happened it wasn't but that has prompted me to think of parallels. Don Quixote lived in the past and looked back to a mythical golden age. In that regard, he reminds me very much of our brexiteer MPs living in the past with their notions of English exceptionalism being the modern equivalent of courtly love and chivalry. The battle with the windmills raises obvious analogies with our noble ministers battling against an intransigent commission. Cervantes intended his novel to be a satire. He would have had a field day had he been alive now.